King of cluck: our judges rate the town’s best fried chicken

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Wayside fried chicken. John Robinson photo. Wayside fried chicken. John Robinson photo.

Buttermilk or brine? Floured or battered? Peanut oil or lard? Pan-fried or deep-fried? These are just a few of the secrets behind fried chicken so crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside that it’ll make you weep. Each method has its devotees, and nary a one of our 11 contestants spilled the beans (baked or otherwise) as to what makes their chicken so finger-licking good, but that didn’t stop us from filling a bucket with a piece from each. We might be a little bit country and a little bit city, but we’ve got a coop full of places frying up chicken that’d make a real southerner proud.

We chose non-chain places known for bone-in chicken fried fresh (read: not frozen!). All selections were gathered the day of the contest and judged blind by Harrison Keevil, chef/owner of Brookville Restaurant; Jenée Libby, The Diner of Cville blogger; and Joel Slezak, co-owner of Free Union Grass Farm.

Keevil went for breasts (“They’re the hardest to do well, since they dry out the fastest”), Libby went for legs, and Slezak went for thighs. They judged each piece’s crispiness/texture, tenderness of meat, seasoning, and overall taste. Appetites were waning around the halfway point, but our professionals soldiered on and crowned the winning bird…then went back for more.

Drumstick—er, drumroll, please!

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Michie Tavern

683 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy.

977-1234

Daily 11:15am-3:30pm

It’s hard to make the last mile of the Saunders-Monticello Trail after smelling southern fried chicken wafting up from this historic tavern where the staff members still dress in colonial attire. It’s juicy (“It would still taste amazing in the morning”), perfectly seasoned (“It has flavor throughout the meat too”), and fried ’til dark (“It’s gotta be the grease they use”), and none of us could get enough (Slezak ate three more pieces following the judging). Take a free tour of the museum and then belly up to the buffet every day in the summer and fill your plate with chicken (baked or fried) and 18th century sides liked stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas for $16.95.

First clucker-up

Wayside Takeout & Catering

2203 Jefferson Park Ave.

977-5000

Open Monday-Thursday 7am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 7am-9:30pm

The only thing keeping chicken lovers from crossing the road is the massive construction site that’s set up outside this 40+-year-old institution. Wayside is still open for business and its chicken scored big for the peppery coating that reminded Virginia-raised Libby of the Golden Skillet’s. The skin stayed crispy long after the judging was complete. Breakfast biscuits and wraps are ready by 7am and “ole Virginia” chicken is fried (or baked) until 9pm/9:30pm every day but Sunday. There are plenty of other things to eat, but the chicken dinner’s the winner. A 12-piece family deal comes with two large sides and six rolls for $21.28.

Second clucker-up

Preston Avenue Shell Station

601 Preston Ave.

296-2004

Monday-Sunday 6am-9pm

Only in Virginia do we know how good the food at gas stations can be, and this Shell Station next to Bodo’s is no exception. It even took our judges by surprise, but for 12 years now, the food counter in the back’s been frying up top-notch chicken (“very tender!”) and dishing up southern sides fresh every day. Its legion of fans swears by its spicy seasoning and the Monday night special, which gets you two pieces of chicken with one side, a biscuit and a 16 ounce drink for $3.99.

Other contenders

Brown’s

1210 Avon St.

295-4911

Monday-Friday 7am-9pm

Formerly Stoney’s Grocery, this pitstop in Belmont is handy for replenishing that toilet paper you ran out of last night. But it’s also garnered quite a following for its fried chicken, which owner Mike Brown became known for when he served it at his mini-market in Esmont years ago. A Sunday special gets you 12 pieces and a two-liter Pepsi product for $19.99.

Brownsville Market

5995 Rockfish Gap Turnpike, Crozet

823-5251

Daily 5am-10pm

This Shell station shop’s been keeping the area’s construction workers and locals in gas, cold drinks, and freshly grilled and fried food for more than 30 years. Its classic fried chicken and traditional sides make the ideal picnic contribution or dinner for the family when you don’t feel like cooking.

Chicken Coop

40 Front St., Lovingston

263-7818

Monday-Thur. 10:30am-7pm, Friday 10:30am-8pm, Saturday 10:30am-7:30pm Sunday 11am-5pm

Chances that there’s chicken at a place with such a name are good. But only Nelson County locals and those who happen upon it while fueling up the car at the Exxon station that houses it would know. Our judges were drawn to an herb in the batter that they couldn’t identify. A 12-piece meal comes with potato wedges, coleslaw, and six rolls for $17.99. And there’re plenty of six-packs or 40s to choose from too.

Foods of All Nations

2121 Ivy Rd.

293-7998

Monday-Saturday 7:30am-8pm, Sunday 8:30am-6pm

It might sell foods from all nations, but the fried chicken is from right here in the U.S. of A.—and this upscale grocery store that’s been around for more than 50 years does it well. Head straight for the deli to stock up on it, plus classic sides like Shirley’s potato salad. Then swing past the bakery for a sweet treat or two.

Lumpkin’s

1075 Valley St., Scottsville

286-3690

Monday-Tuesday, Saturday 7am-3pm, Thursday-Friday 7am-8pm

The giant rooster out front’s a surefire sign that fried chicken’s one of this 50-year-old restaurant and hotel’s specialties. But life shuts down early in the country, so come for breakfast or lunch any day but Wednesday or Sunday, or an early bird dinner on Thursdays and Fridays. The pies are made fresh every day before even the roosters are up.

Mac’s Country Store

7023 Patrick Henry Hwy., Roseland

277-5305

Monday-Sunday 6am-6pm

This convenience store on Route 151 sells your choice of moist white or dark meat chicken, sides, and dinner rolls on your way to or from the area’s growing number of breweries, cideries, and vineyards. A few tables and chairs in the back serve a purpose for those who can’t wait to tuck into the spread. Get a 32-piecer for $36.19.

Mel’s Café

719 W. Main St.

971-8819

Monday-Thursday 10am-10pm, Friday-Saturday 10am-11pm

Soul food’s on the menu at this West Main throwback that’s been in operation and family-owned for “a long, long time.” The fried chicken, which was Keevil’s choice for third place, comes out hot and impossibly crispy (“Are these cornflakes in the coating?” crowed one judge) with two southern comfort sides. Or get a fried chicken leg sandwich and a sweet tea and save room for a slice of their famous sweet potato pie. Whatever you order, they’ll treat you real nice.

The Whiskey Jar

227 W. Main St., Downtown Mall

202-1549

Monday-Thursday 11am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11am-2am

This Downtown Mall newcomer from Rev Soup owner Will Richey satisfies cravings with its local chicken that’s raised on a Mennonite farm and drenched in flavor from the outside in (“It tastes like it’s been injected with Texas Pete!” a judge observed) then served over local collards studded with Kite’s Country Bacon for $12. A drink made with one of the 46 bottles of whiskey on the wall sweetens the deal.

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