Fare Share: Take a Look Inside These Historic Small Restaurants
A tour of three dining establishments chosen for the National Trust's Backing Historic Small Restaurants Program
Since 2021, the National Trust and American Express have presented the Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant program. Seventy-five establishments, including those featured here, have been chosen to receive grants to fund preservation work and other projects aimed at helping these businesses thrive.
China King’s Restaurant, Leesburg, Virginia
On a narrow street in downtown Leesburg, Virginia, where historic stone and brick buildings create an understated, quaint vibe, China King’s literally gleams. The 35-year-old restaurant is clad in Vitrolite, a pigmented glass that became popular in the Art Deco era. A recent restoration of the glass has not only brightened the facade but also drawn new customers to this downtown fixture.
The China King’s building dates to 1778 and has housed a Chinese restaurant since 1972, a time when there were few Asian restaurants in this more rural part of northern Virginia. Today, the restaurant is owned and operated by the sister-and-brother team of Mindy Schwanborg and Alan Whang. The business was formerly run by their immigrant parents, who had purchased the restaurant from other owners in 1989.
After pivoting from a more formal sit-down restaurant to take-out-only during the pandemic, China King’s is now a hybrid. Patrons are served traditional Chinese dishes in to-go containers, but they can opt to dine in or take out as they wish. Despite the casual vibe, the restaurant offers special touches. When my friend and I lunched there recently, Whang asked careful questions to determine how much spice we could handle, and Schwanborg brought out a bottle of vinegar so we could adjust the tanginess of our hot-and-sour soup.
The building exterior had featured dark-green Vitrolite since the 1950s, but in recent years several panes were damaged and cracked. Because Vitrolite is no longer manufactured in the United States, new panes are hard to come by. But after receiving a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant, the owners contracted with Vitrolite specialist Tim Dunn, who replaced the green panes with red ones salvaged from another project. (A few green panes remain on the side of the building.)
The restoration drew lots of curious passersby who often ended up becoming customers, Schwanborg says. “The red is a true positive change,” she adds. “We’ve been here for so long that it’s nice to have a new look, and so it was very refreshing and very timely.” —Kim O'Connell
Golden Burro Cafe and Lounge, Leadville, Colorado
When Dan and Marcee Lundeen decided to move from Houston to the Victorian-era mining town of Leadville, Colorado, they dreamed of opening a smoothie shop downtown. But their vision expanded considerably when they saw a “For Sale” sign outside the Golden Burro Cafe and Lounge, a longtime fixture in Leadville. Opened as Roy’s Lunch in 1934, the diner was later renamed and, in 1945, moved to its present location in an 1880s commercial space on Harrison Avenue. It was renovated and expanded in 1958—and changed very little ever since.
The Lundeens, both attorneys, assumed ownership in April 2021 and launched a major renovation effort. “It was in pretty rough shape,” Marcee says. They updated its electrical systems and kitchen plumbing and replaced the dining room carpet with new flooring. They also upgraded the kitchen equipment, added Formica tables, and traded out the old booths—covered in duct tape patches—for retro-style ones. The Golden Burro (shown at top) re-opened that July, with a new, plant-based menu.
The couple tapped into state and federal historic tax credits to fund the renovation and, in the process, secured a spot for the Golden Burro on the National Register of Historic Places. (The restaurant was already part of the town’s historic district, which is a National Historic Landmark. Leadville is also a Main Street America community.)
With the help of a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant, the Lundeens tackled the restaurant’s exterior. They repaired its signature blue-and-yellow neon sign; repaired and, where necessary, replaced Vitrolite tiles; and swapped an oversize 1980s canopy for a smaller 1950s-style awning. “We have a great view of the mountains,” Marcee says. “This new awning lets you see them.”
With their law practice picking back up after the COVID-19 slowdown, the Lundeens found themselves with less time to run the Golden Burro. They made the decision to lease the space to local entrepreneurs and brothers Armando and Fernando López, who began its next chapter as a Mexican restaurant in November 2023. The Lundeens put provisions in the lease to protect the restaurant’s historic character, including its facade and original counters and bar. And, of course, the neon sign.
“That sign is part of the history,” Marcee says. “It isn’t going anywhere.” —Lauren Walser
Glen Rock Mill Inn, Glen Rock, Pennsylvania
At 14 years old, after mowing lawns as a way to earn spending money, Brandon Hufnagel got himself hired as a dishwasher at the Glen Rock Mill Inn, a historic restaurant and hotel in the rural, southern Pennsylvania town of Glen Rock. Before long, he had graduated to chopping vegetables and moving up the prep line. Having discovered his calling, he eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America.
In 2018, Hufnagel’s career as a chef and in business development at other establishments came full circle when he purchased the place where he’d gotten his start. Built in a historic mill that dates to 1837, the seven-suite boutique hotel offers both casual fare and white-tablecloth fine dining with a rotating menu of seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients. Recent offerings have included truffle frites, hickory-smoked duck breast, and “cocoa-cola” short ribs made with a cocoa-chile dry rub and a braise of cola, red wine, and beef stock.
Now the oldest extant building in town, the inn has served as a wool mill, grist mill, flour mill, and feed mill, closing only for a few years in the mid-1980s so it could be converted to its current use. The building still features its original hand-hewn chestnut beams, brick, and mill race, but years of piecemeal repairs meant that it also retained some anachronistic and outdated windows and plywood siding.
Thanks to a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant in 2022, those elements have been replaced with more period-appropriate board-and-batten-style siding and divided-light, double-hung windows. Exterior doors were also replaced with weathertight doors designed to replicate the originals.
“Being in the center of town and the oldest building in town, so many locals were interested in what we were doing,” Hufnagel says. “I think they’re appreciative that the building is being cared for and that it will be around another 100 years.” —Kim O'Connell
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