It's Friday night, and Oak Street is rocking. From one end of Roanoke's main drag to the other, it's a bona fide scene. Folks congregate in front of Twisted Root Burger Co., their kids bouncing around on the sidewalk. A rowdy crew hangs at the bar at Cowboy Chow. Couples sip red wine at Brix Pizza & Wine Bar. Gaze down the street, and you can spy the old-schoolers lounging outside Babe's Chicken.
After dinner, people stroll up and down the street, peering in storefronts and eyeing the vintage architecture.
If the timing is right, they can catch an outdoor concert, which Roanoke hosts at the Austin Street Plaza every month. (The next one, on Oct. 27, features the band Empty Pockets.)
Once a sleepy spot on the map, Roanoke has become a destination where people flock for a variety of dining options and the opportunity to inhale a small-town atmosphere that's completely homegrown.
"It draws people from all over -- it's become a mecca," says chef Daniele Puleo, who opened Brix on Oak Street last year. "I used to have a place on Oak Lawn in Dallas, and I'd put Roanoke up there with any other dining scene."
Since 2009, the town has welcomed more than a dozen new restaurants, part of an $8 million makeover that has transformed Roanoke into a diner's dream, with everything from bratwurst with potato pancakes to gourmet pizza and Thai noodles.
What puts it on the foodie radar is its level of authenticity.
"The city did not seek corporations or chains. They wanted the guy who has his own business," says Puleo, who is a native of Sicily.
"They wanted pizza, so they got the guy from Italy. They wanted a German restaurant, so they got the German guy," Puleo says, referring to Gerhard Pelzer, who owns the German restaurant Gerhard's.
Twisted Root, now a small-scale burger chain based in Dallas, was an early settler in Roanoke when it opened there in July 2009.
"We were at the beginning of the new wave and the first restaurant that had been built there in 15 years," says Twisted Root owner Jason Boso. "The mayor at the time approached me. The first thing I said was, 'Where the heck is Roanoke?' But I went out and saw the clientele. I saw people sitting on coolers waiting to get into Babe's. It had such a cool feeling in this small little town."
Twisted Root is one of the most popular family spots, with its roomy wooden booths and easygoing atmosphere. The burgers are a step above fast food, and there's "adult" shaved ice that is spiked with alcohol.
For more sophisticated palates, Twisted Root's sibling concept Cowboy Chow does a gourmet take on home cooking, with irresistible slow-cooked brisket accompanied by skin-on mashed potatoes, or chicken potpie with a flaky crust, served in a tiny cast-iron pot. Cocktails such as bourbon with bacon and jalapeño bring a touch of the new mixology trend. Rocking chairs lined up in front add an ironic wink to the street's Old West vibe.
No culinary hot spot is complete without Neapolitan-style pizza, and Brix brings it. Its pizzas are superb: baked in a domed oven and topped with gourmet goods like grilled eggplant, spinach and caramelized onions. Even in the heat of summer, its sun-dappled patio is a draw, and its wine list includes dozens of selections by the glass.
Gerhard's combines authentic German fare with a passion for soccer: The dining room is lined with quirky, life-size photos of soccer players on the walls, and, if the timing's right, pro soccer games on the TV. The kitchen turns out well-made renditions of schnitzel, spaetzle and strudel; you won't find a better potato pancake in town. (In fact, the Star-Telegram declared Gerhard's one of the 10 best new restaurants in the area last year.) On weekend nights, there's live polka music and a half-dozen ice-cold German beers on tap.
Before Oak Street reinvented itself as a restaurant row, Babe's Chicken was there first, and it remains a destination.
Even with all the new neighbors, people still camp outside this century-old brick building, happy to wait an hour for award-winning fried chicken, creamed corn, mashed potatoes and flaky biscuits with sorghum syrup on the side.
Other options include the bento box at One Fish Two Fish and tacos at the newly arrived Fuzzy's Taco Shop. Oak St. Pie & Candy Co. has good fruit cobbler and house-baked pies, while Yogurt Story offers a dozen flavors -- white chocolate, pink lemonade, raspberry -- that you serve yourself. There's coffee, too, from the independently owned Book Carriage & Coffee Shop.
And more places are coming, including Hard Eight BBQ, which will open a branch in November.
"When people don't feel like eating at a big giant chain," says Twisted Root's Boso, "they come over to Roanoke."