Inside the C&O’s big wooden door, it was cool and dark and reminiscent of lovely evenings spent there—some for occasions, others for a final drink on a night I wasn’t ready to end. Volumes could be filled with patrons’ stories, but it was those of proprietor Dave Simpson (who’s eminently quotable, but especially on the heels of tapping Keswick’s Dean Maupin as his successor) that nearly filled my journal.
Simpson appeared wearing his uniform of dark jeans, a black shirt, and a belt fastened with a silver C&O belt buckle. He’s been wearing his hair (more salt than pepper now) longer over the years and it, along with the grin of a cheshire cat, belies his 58 years. But it’s likely the 32 C&O years under that belt buckle that’ve kept him young enough that he’s only now slowing down.
Growing up on Chesapeake Street, Simpson and his brother used to watch the C&O railroad workers. On his 13th birthday at Shoney’s, Simpson got a busboy job. “That was my first exposure to being around adults other than my parents and I was spellbound by the people that inhabited the industry,” said Simpson. He cooked in the Bay Area, but returned to Charlottesville in 1980, heading straight for the C&O, which Philip Stafford and Sandy McAdams had opened four years prior. After two years as a prep cook, Simpson bought what he described as a white elephant: “Very little hard value, great emotional value.”
Three decades have passed, and while 80-120 covers a night plus a large catering arm have turned a pretty profit, it’s still the ineffable that outvalues the numbers. That C&O magic stayed with Maupin, whose year spent cooking there (1995-1996) stood out to Simpson. “I thought, this is clearly what Dean’s going to do for a living, but I knew his interests were far too grand to stay put for too long at C&O. It was fun to follow him in his successes at the Greenbrier, The Clifton Inn, and Keswick.”
The two reconnected while sitting on the advisory board of PVCC’s new culinary school. Maupin, eager to return to an independent restaurant and Simpson, looking for an heir apparent. Minus 20 years, they could be twins—mirror images of boyish hair, rectangular glasses, earnestness, and graciousness. Moons aligned and by June, Maupin came “home” to the C&O.
“I had a great love affair with the energy and what I learned here. Now, I have a chance to do my own thing all while holding the respect of the place. It will be a really happy marriage,” said Maupin.
Few marriages inspire as much rhapsody as this one, between a restaurant with Midas’ touch and a chef who turns everything he touches into something that, as one devotee put it, you dream about for years. Maupin spent June in the office with paperwork—a job that many chefs lament, but one that he relishes. It was mid-July when his first typed menu (the calligraphy was courtesy of the recently retired Elaine Futhey, see The Working Pour) graced the tables, and changes were slight. “You’d be a fool to mess around with a few dishes, but 70 percent of the menu will be ever-changing.” The artichoke paté, steak chinoise, and Cuban steak are among the relics that Maupin kept, knowing that their removal would mean mutiny. “I want to reach our 50-year anniversary and tout that we’re still doing the same stuff,” he said.
Even the new dishes aren’t entirely new. Admirers will recognize incarnations from his days at Clifton and Keswick. His ingredients are choice without being extravagant, and his style’s refined without being pretentious. Most of all, Maupin makes food you want eat, not analyze. Gnocchi made with humble russet potatoes turn holy when they join glistening chanterelles, a spry scatter of chives, and a tangle of pea tendrils atop fontina fondue. Potato-crusted rag mountain trout tastes earthy over a verdant basil and dill salsa verde with smoky bell pepper coulis.
While the plates’ complexities challenge you to name that ingredient, their rusticity demands that you do nothing more than devour them. It’s a juxtaposition shared by Maupin himself, who’s extraordinarily talented, yet chats with guests in the bistro before excusing himself to “go cook for y’all now.”
As the fish tank gurgles on at the C&O, expect the menu to get “funkier,” breaking out of the course confines with small plates and sides for the table. New ideas bounce between Maupin and Simpson—brunch, pop-ups, a food truck—but they’re quick to remember the formidable fact that in the restaurant business, you’re never done.
Aside from supporting his scion, Simpson’s focus for the next few years will be catering. And after that? “I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be a very good golfer. I like to be useful somehow.”