LEXINGTON, Va. - A car slowed to a crawl at the intersection of East Washington and North Randolph streets Friday evening as a woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window. Eyes wide, she reached out and snapped a photo of a rustic-looking building - not the one that Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson once called home, but a tiny red restaurant just across the street.
Unless its occupants had dinner reservations, most cars would once have driven right past the Red Hen, arguably the less controversial landmark of the two. But it has become famous in the two weeks since co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because of her support for an "inhumane and unethical" administration, prompting a debate driven, by social media and thinkpieces, on civility, a presidential tweet, protests and counterprotests.
"I’m not a huge fan of confrontation," Wilkinson told The Washington Post soon after the incident. "I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals."
Suddenly a lightning rod for political feuds, the Red Hen went on a two-week hiatus. It reopened Thursday at 5 p.m., a bit after conservative protesters arrived with block-print signs with slogans such as, "We shall overcome . . . Democrats!"
But by the next evening, everyone had vanished. Though traces of controversy remain, the Red Hen’s primary identity as a simple farm-to-table restaurant seems poised to return.
This would probably please managers - who declined to comment and asked that we not "disturb" guests when we dined there for this story - but it is hard not to notice that the restaurant may be seeing an uptick in business from the attention. A sign on the front doors both Thursday and Friday announced that the Red Hen had been fully booked for the evening and, according to an employee, the same would be true on Saturday.
As general manager Becca Adams swept muddy rainwater off a side patio about 20 minutes before the restaurant was scheduled to open on Friday, a couple of visitors approached to see if they might be squeezed in. No dice. The intimate space seats just 26 people, reflecting the cozy feel of a rural Virginia town with a population of about 7,000.
There was room inside for a man named Daniel, however, whose name someone exclaimed as he walked through the side entrance. The Red Hen is the kind of neighborhood joint with regulars, another of whom smiled at her chipper waiter and said softly, "We’re so happy to be here." Her fellow diners murmured in agreement.
The Red Hen’s homey dining room could very well be part of a modest-sized house, with stairs reminiscent of those in a Disney princess’s animated cottage. A shelf behind the largest table holds cookbooks recognizable from the spine alone, such as Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." An open kitchen, displaying hanging cast-iron pans and a shiny KitchenAid mixer, contributes to the inviting atmosphere.
All this, despite President Donald Trump’s presumption on Twitter that the restaurant’s "filthy canopies, doors and windows" meant it would be "dirty on the inside." (It didn’t seem to be.)
The food falls into the catchall category of New American cuisine, with French influences and a cheese-filled menu. The cheese and crackers appetizer, served on a wood block, pairs creamy blue and sharp cheddar with acidic complements: housemade candied orange, apple slices and cornichons. Most entrees include a form of dairy as a prominent flavor, and the dessert menu is full of creamy selections.
Compared to its neighbors, the Red Hen is pricey. Stroll down Main Street, and you’ll notice that other New American restaurants, such as Southern Inn Restaurant and Bistro On Main, offer a number of entrees under $20, whereas the Red Hen’s average about $25. The restaurant’s Yelp page would agree, but take that with a grain of salt: Sanders supporters flooded it with negative reviews.
Perhaps they’re charging for the farm element, as fresh produce - carrots, greens, sweet pearl onions and more - pops up throughout the cheesy fare. The mushroom fricassee, for example, sources both its fungi and lemon balm (which flavors a risotto) from farms.
The food is pleasant yet none too remarkable, which makes the Red Hen seem such an odd location for sudden infamy. The friendly employees seemed careful the night we visited to avoid political or opinionated language. Perhaps they were this way before the Sanders incident, too: In a country overwrought with political tension, it can be difficult not to see everything as reactionary.
Few people strolled past the restaurant’s left side as the evening drew to a close, but most slowed their pace as they did. A colorful, handwritten sign had been placed against a door and, at one point, four young men paused their boisterous conversation to read it. One then peered inquisitively into the dining room.
Whether it’s true, the message couldn’t be clearer: "Eating here trumps tweeting here."