Best of C-VILLE 2015: Food & Drink

Rammelkamp Foto

The first thing you need to know about eating and drinking in Charlottesville is that you could spend your whole life here and never hit every hot spot. But readers have named nearly 40 of the best, from brewery to bakery. We suggest you start there.

 

Restaurant

Mas

Runner-up: The Local
Honorable mention: Lampo
We always thought “Mas” meant “more” in Spanish, until we realized it doesn’t have a crucial accent mark. Owner Tomas Rahal clues us in that’s it’s an abbreviation of his name—and a double entendre on “more.” Which makes sense, because the original tapas restaurant in town always makes readers want more—more sangria, more jamon, more gambas al parilla. And right down the street is The Local, a neighborhood restaurant with the kind of comfort food you always wish Mom had cooked.

Best bartender Micah LeMon says the customers at The Alley Light are curious and savvy, which makes his job easier (and more fun). Photo: Amy Jackson/Jackson Smith
Best bartender Micah LeMon says the customers at The Alley Light are curious and savvy, which makes his job easier (and more fun). Photo: Amy Jackson/Jackson Smith

Bartender

Micah LeMon (The Alley Light)

Shaking things up
Accidental bartender Micah LeMon wants to change the scene—are you ready?

I started bartending before I’d ever had a drink. Backing up even further, I grew up with parents who didn’t drink. We came from a Christian tradition that banned alcohol, required women’s dresses to be below the knee, men’s hair to be short and music to be out-and-out praisin’ Jesus. So when I started bartending at a country club to earn a little money, my parents were nonplussed, to say the least. At the time, I was content being a broke college kid with straight As, but my friends all managed to get a job at this one place and talked about epic parties they’d worked and hosted; I felt like I needed to investigate this other world.

Working events as a green, worldly-unwise 20-year-old was a blast. A culture where people drank and danced and made merry was utterly foreign to me, and in the best possible way. And even more peculiar was that if I remembered what a given person’s drink of choice was, they would become especially friendly! This cycle of good times, good energy and good friends really made bartending a great job as a young man.

As I got older, the joy of making vodka-crans began to diminish. Truth be told, I still felt like a bit of an outsider nearly a decade into bartending, as I thought that the taste of alcohol was, still, very harsh and unpalatable. I hadn’t encountered a deftly crafted cocktail, where the sharp edges of booze had been mellowed, rounded and transformed into something otherly and delicious. I was curious to know if that was even possible, so I started tinkering around about eight years ago.

My original approach was culinary. I bought a house in 2007, mostly to have a garden where I could get fresh herbs, produce and some fruit. I started cooking, and did a stage (working for free in exchange for experience) or two and was fascinated by how much technique there is in French kitchens—and how little there was in American bars. I thought that should change. After a year, I was convinced of the superiority of in-season produce, fresh juice and herbs cut from the ground that morning. I discovered good vermouth—that was a monumental. I learned about bitters, amaros and the digestifs that every culture swears by. And each night at the bar, I labored (frequently in vain) to convince pedestrian drinkers to try, say, a Basil and Watermelon Daiquiri (with basil from my garden!) instead of their usual vodka soda. After a few years of nightly failures, I was exhausted and ready to quit. That, and I really hurt my back after hoisting full bins of empty bottles every night.

After a two-year recovery from back surgery, I was looking to change fields. Fortuitously, a friend told me about this restaurant project called The Alley Light. “I get to make proper cocktails?” I thought. “There must be a catch.” I’ve been pinching myself each night since we opened. Working with a passionate chef, having a detail-oriented staff, encountering curious and savvy customers and having the tools and resources to make great drinks every night is a dream come true. Charlottesville, like many of the big cities in the U.S., has re-embraced a cocktail culture that thrived in our country close to 150 years ago. I guess I’m finally in the right place at the right time.—M.L.

Runner-up: Amanda Wood (Zocalo)
Honorable mention: Jesse Fellows (Parallel 38)

New restaurant

Lampo

Runner-up: Duck Donuts
Honorable mention: Oakhart Social
If a pizza place has been standing room only since it opened, boasts a 6,000-pound Italian-made brick oven and well-regarded local foodie owners who know their farm to table, it’s all but destined to be the best in town. And while Lampo’s Neapolitan pizza is still waiting on official certification from the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, readers say each offering is delicious. Duck Donuts, this year’s runner-up, is an interesting addition to this category. Sure, you could stuff your faces with made-to-order maple bacon donuts, but we usually think of restaurants as a place for a meal, rather than a high-blood sugar indulgence. Whatever. We’ll take a strawberry with chocolate sprinkles.

Coffeehouse

Mudhouse

Runner-up: Shenandoah Joe
Honorable mention: Milli Joe
Mudhouse has set the gold standard for Charlottesville coffeehouses since it opened its first location on the Downtown Mall 20 years ago. Lynelle and John Lawrence started with a coffee cart—in November, no less. Now they have two locations—the other one is in Crozet—and two coffee bars, so you’re never too far from your next caffeine buzz. Shenandoah Joe on Preston Avenue has been a favorite since it opened 15 years ago for its in-house roasting scene. This year it just opened its fourth location—in Harrisonburg.

Breakfast/brunch

Bodo’s Bagels

Runner-up: Bluegrass Grill & Bakery
Honorable mention: Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
They say you can only ever have two of the following: good, fast or cheap. You can get it fast and it’ll be good, but it won’t come cheap. Or, you can get it cheap and fast, but it won’t be very good. (You get the idea.) Readers know Bodo’s is the exception to this rule. It’s quick, inexpensive and down right delicious every time, no matter what you order. In the runner-up slot, Bluegrass impresses with (what else?) homemade biscuits. Like a cross between a biscuit and a scone, these puppies have lines forming out the Glass Building door every Saturday morning.

Diner

Blue Moon Diner

Runner-up: Riverside Lunch
Honorable mention: Bluegrass Grill & Bakery
Blue Moon Diner was the happening diner in town way before Food Network started its “Diners, Drive- ins and Dives.” Maybe it’s the breakfast all day with the comforting local familiarity of Hogwaller Hash. Maybe it’s the Cheerwine on the menu or our particular favorite, E-mergen-c. Maybe it’s being able to order a Bloody Mary before 11am without fear of judgment. Certainly added cachet comes from the live music Wednesdays through Fridays and from being home to the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers. But this we know for sure: Blue Moon was voted best diner because locals always know where the tried-and-true eats are. Ditto Riverside Lunch and its renowned old-school burger.

Restaurant wine list

C&O

Runner-up: Tavola
Honorable mention: Parallel 38
C&O continues its tradition of earning the blue ribbon for best wine list, even though Elaine Futhey, who for 30 years was in charge of its selections, retired three years ago. The list is about a third the size it used to be, and offers wines for the regulars who come in every week, wines for the special occasion couples and wines for the wine geek. Its high-quality selections are approachable, and that’s why it keeps on winning. Over at Tavola, manager Wells Blanchard is a certified sommelier, so no surprise that its curated approach is a winner.

Outdoor dining

Blue Mountain Brewery

Runner-up: Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards
Honorable mention: Mas
Booze and views: That’s what readers say truly make the best outdoor dining experience. In the top spot is Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, where the vast patio faces luscious fields toward the Blue Ridge backdrop. Take a spot under the colorful umbrellas and try a sampler while listening to live music (every Sunday). Over in North Garden, the rustic patio off the barn at Pippin Hill encourages guests to drink in the rolling landscape…and a glass of sauvignon blanc.

Butcher shop

JM Stock Provisions Supply

Runner-up: The Organic Butcher
Honorable mention: Reid Super Save Market
Talk about going whole hog. At JM Stock, responsibly produced food shouldn’t just be acceptable—it should be approachable. That’s the premise behind the West Main Street shop, which readers know is the best spot for sustainably produced meats from nose to tail. But you don’t have to get a whole slab—try one of the sandwiches offered on the weekends. Down the street in the Main Street Market, The Organic Butcher cuts the highest quality of sausage links, pork, poultry and local beef offered daily.

Crosé

Virginia wine

Crosé Rosé (King Family Vineyard)

“What’s in a name? A Crosé by any other name would surely taste as good. But to call a rosé from Crozet Crosé is priceless. This boldly colored dry rosé is a blend of 76 percent merlot and 24 percent cabernet sauvignon. Medium-bodied with a vibrant acidity, it entices with aromas of strawberry, white peach and passion fruit.”—Robert Harllee, owner of Market Street Wineshops (best place to buy wine)

Runner-up: Octagon (Barboursville Vineyard)
Honorable mention: Viognier (Veritas Vineyard & Winery)

Local brewery

Blue Mountain Brewery

Runner-up: Devils Backbone Brewery
Honorable mention: Three Notch’d Brewing Company
The first brewery in Nelson County, Blue Mountain Brewery is only getting better with each passing year—and getting bigger! With a brand new barrel house just opened down the road in Arrington, 10,000 barrels of Virginia’s finest beer will be brewed this year. And while visiting either location is the best way to enjoy BMB’s brews, readers say, it’s easy to nab a Full Nelson or Kolsch 151 at more than 20 locations around town. At Devils Backbone in Roseland, find favorites like Vienna Lager, Eight Point IPA and the cheekily named Kilt Flasher.

Bar scene

Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar

Runner-up: The Alley Light
Honorable mention: Citizen Burger Bar
You’ll find young professionals, sports fans and middle-aged divorcées at Skybar, one of the top stops on any Downtown Mall bar hop. Word to the wise: If you’re looking for a more unfettered bar experience, head downstairs, which is typically uncrowded. At the other end of the mall, The Alley Light’s pint-sized scene is notable, mostly, for its inventive (and delicious) cocktails and more upscale clientele.

The Mango Tango (Absolut Mango, red chile simple syrup and mango juice) is one of about 40 specialty drinks at downtown cocktail spot Bang!. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The Mango Tango (Absolut Mango, red chile simple syrup and mango juice) is one of about 40 specialty drinks at downtown cocktail spot Bang!. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Cocktails

Bang!

Bottoms up
Bang!’s signature martinis keep you coming back for more
There’s not a mean boss, crummy client or 250 Bypass traffic snarl that can’t be conquered by a sip of a Mr. Big. Or an Afterglow. Or maybe The Joe. Belly up to the bar at Bang!, the Asian-inspired tapas restaurant that’s made a name for itself with a martini list that would impress James Bond, and before you can say “Bring me a Pantydropper,” you’ll forget about your terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Trust us.

When I started here in 2009, we had about 20 martinis,” says restaurant manager Laura Price, the brains behind the 40-some specialty drinks that now appear on the downtown hot spot’s two-page cocktail menu. “I was thrown into the bar on my first night, and it just went from there. It’s been kind of fun to watch my growth with martinis.” The Sin City (vodka, blackberry and pomegranate) is Price’s most popular concoction, but come August, bar regulars clamor for Bang!’s two seasonal drinks—Frosty’s Nightcap and the Pumpkin Patch—which make their return in September. Her personal fave? The very refreshing Soixante Quinze, made with gin, lemon, prosecco and Bang!’s own special sweetener (instead of straight sugar).

According to Price, the key to cocktail success (Bang! serves about 250 drinks a night and has been in the Best of C-VILLE winner’s circle for several years) is a willingness to play—with existing drinks, various liquors and lots of flavors: One day Price noticed she didn’t have anything “earthy” on her menu, so she mixed some Square One organic vodka with rosemary and elderflower green tea to create the Secret Garden. She also “focuses on a liquor’s flavor and tries to incorporate that flavor rather than mask it.” And even when a cocktail isn’t a bestseller, if it has a following, Price won’t deep-six it because that’s “what keeps our menu big, with a lot of choices and something for everyone.”—S.S.

Runner-up: The Alley Light
Honorable mention: Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar

Happy hour

The Whiskey Jar

Runner-up: South Street Brewery
Honorable mention: Beer Run
There are two ways to make readers happy: alcohol and animals. More specifically, puppies, which is why Whiskey Jar takes top honors for the happiest of happy hours. In addition to $2 off draft beers and 50 percent off featured whiskey each weekday from 3- 6pm, on Wednesdays, you’ll find half-priced bottles of wine and the special “Puppy Happy Hour” where corn dogs and hush puppies are served and 10 percent of happy hour sales are donated to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA. At South Street Brewery, drink up from 3-7pm, when draft beers are $3.50 and you can take $1 off house wines.

In addition to its draft beers, Beer Run often hosts new breweries, putting their beers on tap as a sort of taste-test for customers. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
In addition to its draft beers, Beer Run often hosts new breweries, putting their beers on tap as a sort of taste-test for customers. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Draft beer

Beer Run

Your beer buyer knows best
An insider’s top five recommendations

According to Beer Run’s official beer buyer, Jay Campbell, you can’t go wrong when ordering a draft beer at this kingdom of brews, but he offers Beer Run’s top five bestsellers as a good place to start.

Campbell gives numbers one and two to Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA and Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ American Wheat Pale Ale. He says customers kick kegs of these two brews year round—they’re always on hand and they empty just as fast as they’re stocked.

His next two choices aren’t quite as accessible, which makes them even more noteworthy. Two seasonal brews, Bell’s Hopslam Double IPA and Founders’ Breakfast Stout, take numbers three and four on Campbell’s list. He says customers usually begin pouring into the bar (no pun intended) about two hours before they know kegs of these two brews are being tapped, just to make sure they get their hands on a cold pint. The breakfast beer is an oatmeal stout that’s aged for a year and brewed in a Kentucky bourbon barrel with tons of chocolate, oats and coffee. Is that sweet enough for you?

Campbell hands number five on his list to the collection of local breweries. “It’s a group effort,” he says. Beer Run often hosts local breweries, putting their beers on tap and letting them shine before they open their own shops. As Campbell puts it, it gives the new breweries a chance to prove their worthiness to the sophisticated palates of local beer drinkers in Charlottesville. It’s almost a public service.

“We can’t force people to drink it,” Campbell says, “but we can put it on tap.”—S.B.

Runner-up: Blue Mountain Brewery
Honorable mention: Three Notch’d Brewing Company

Bakery

Albemarle Baking Co.

Runner-up: MarieBette
Honorable mention: Sweethaus
There’s nothing like a summer Raspberry Wonder—vanilla sponge cake, white chocolate mousse, a layer of raspberry mousse and a cover of fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries—to set you on the path to sugary happiness. And that’s just one of the reasons Albemarle Baking Co. takes the cake (oh, cake!) again this year. You can’t find a treat that’s fresher—pastries, cakes and breads are baked daily. Plus, you can find the Main Street Market’s bread on the tables of many of Charlottesville’s finest eateries. As for MarieBette, the itty-bitty Euro-style café on Rose Hill Drive, we have just one word for you: bronut. And canelé. And croissant. And…

Caterer

Harvest Moon Catering

Runner-up: BBQ Exchange
Honorable mention: Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
You gotta know when to throw in the towel. For many C-VILLE readers, that means cooking for more than, say, three or four. That’s where Harvest Moon comes in. Whether for your holiday party or your wedding reception, the Preston Avenue biz will set the table faster than you can say hickory grilled strip steak with heirloom tomato focaccia croutons. At BBQ Exchange, no matter if you need 10 pounds or 100 pounds for your event, chef Craig Hartman’s got your pork aplenty.

Owner Duffy Pappas, here with manager Margie Gilbert. Photo: Amy Jackson/Jackson Smith
Owner Duffy Pappas, here with manager Margie Gilbert. Photo: Amy Jackson/Jackson Smith

Mexican

Continental Divide

Get in here
The great (Continental) Divide is going strong after more than two decades

Duffy Pappas was just another college kid getting liquored up at The Virginian one weekend in the 1970s, and the place “was packed,” he recalls. “I was sitting opposite the pickup window to the kitchen, and I remember looking in, seeing the cooks just working their asses off, and thinking, ‘I am never fucking doing that.’”

Turns out Pappas couldn’t have been more wrong about the direction his life would take: He’s been working his ass off at Continental Divide, a crazy-busy Southwestern comfort food joint, since he opened it in the spring of 1994.

Despite early opposition to restaurant work, Pappas says he’d been thinking about his own restaurant for a while when he noticed a For Lease sign on the former Garden Gourmet at 811 W. Main St. And when it came time to name his new eatery, he pulled out a map “and there it was.”

Finding a space and coming up with a name, however, were the easy parts. Turning a dream into a successful business took some doing. But when asked about it, Pappas says, “I don’t think it’s anything too complicated: Word of mouth. Good, affordable food. And a small, kick-ass staff that people know by name and come back to see.” Pappas also claims to not “cater to what people expect when they go out to eat.” Continental Divide is unapologetically “boisterous” and doesn’t have computers, ketchup or highchairs. “Some people hate that, and that’s OK with me,” he says, because plenty of people love it.

Plenty of people also love the Divide’s take on enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, burritos and nachos. According to Pappas, it’s the chef’s responsibility to devise each night’s dinner specials, and “over the years, we’ve collected a number of tried-and-true [menu items] that myself or former chefs have created. We try to run those from time to time as well.” The most popular dish is “an ongoing battle” between the Red Hot Blues (hand-cut blue corn chips topped with goat and jack cheeses and red onions), Tuna Tostada (a sushi grade tuna steak and puréed black beans on a tortilla, with goat cheese, red pepper coulis and jalapeño glaze) and Santa Fe Enchilada (yellow and blue corn tortillas layered with grilled chicken and cheese, topped with a spicy chipotle sauce and cilantro crema, served with rice, beans and a pumpkin muffin).

As for Continental Divide’s signature margaritas, Pappas came up with the house-made mix recipe shortly after he opened. In addition to a page-long list of tequilas to pick from, you can also customize your drink by choosing Cointreau or Grand Marnier over the rail triple sec. “We have good bartenders and good tequilas,” Pappas says. “That’s pretty important to us.”

And what about that neon directive in the window? You know, the one that orders customers to “Get In Here.”

“I had a sign at the beginning, but it blew off the building during a storm a long time ago,” Pappas says. After that, he wrote the restaurant’s name and address with a Sharpie on a brick outside the front door. Now, however, “‘Get in here’ pretty much speaks for itself,” he says, adding that “we haven’t changed the way we do things very much over the years. The food has evolved a little, but we still run things about the same as we did 20 years ago.”—S.S.

Runner-up: La Michoacana
Honorable mention: Guadalajara

Chinese

Peter Chang China Grill

Runner-up: Red Lantern
Honorable mention: Taste of China

Some say that after they’ve tried Peter Chang’s spicy Sichuan-style authentic Chinese cuisine, they’ll never dine at another Chinese restaurant. Take note of the dry-fried eggplant and scallion pancakes—both must-haves when dining at the Barracks Road North spot—and, if you’re lucky, you might catch Chang himself in the kitchen. At runner-up Red Lantern, readers love a bargain: The lunch special is $6 and you can dine in, pick it up or have it delivered right to your front door.

Eating octopus is fine for some, but unagi don (a rice bowl with freshwater eel) is a favorite of chef Toshi Sato. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Eating octopus is fine for some, but unagi don (a rice bowl with freshwater eel) is a favorite of chef Toshi Sato. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Japanese

Now & Zen

Pass the octopus
Chef Toshi Sato’s four favorite offerings
Twenty-eight years ago, when Chef Toshi Sato moved to America from Japan, the sushi landscape looked very different. “Not too many people were looking for sushi. And we didn’t have rolls. It was just sushi,” he told us a few years ago. But he changed that (at least in our little corner of the world) and, again this year, Now & Zen comes in on top. We asked him to show off a few of his most popular and most exotic specials, dishes and sushi rolls.
Unagi don

This traditional rice bowl comes with fresh eel, cucumber and avocado. Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel and, though we don’t eat it too much in the United States, it’s a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Not to be confused with anago—that’s saltwater eel, of course.

Aburi salmon

A crowd favorite and another special, the layered sushi dish comes with rice, seared salmon, raw salmon, maple-soy glaze, dill aioli, cracked black pepper and jalapeño. Combining maple, dill and the spicy pepper gives this fish an exciting, uncommon twist.

Octopus tempura

You’ll find this lightly fried octopus with spicy dipping sauce and a green salad on the specials list.

Tarantula roll

Last but not least, this classic sushi roll (which doesn’t actually contain tarantula, you’ll be pleased to find out) is known to sushi lovers across the globe, and at Now & Zen, quite a few are ordered every day. This nearly roll comes with soft-shell crab tempura, tobiko (fish eggs), cucumber, avocado, toasted almonds, tempura flakes, sriracha, spicy mayonnaise and eel sauce.

And to wash it all down, choose from a selection of Japanese beers and saki. Or you can order a Coke, if that’s what you’re into.—S.B.

Runner-up: Ten
Honorable mention: Sakura

Thai

Monsoon Siam

Runner-up: Thai 99
Honorable mention: Pad Thai
Accessible, affordable and perhaps the only place to find a river monster in town, Monsoon Siam wins again. But what’s a river monster? A deep-fried tilapia dish you’ll find on the specials—and it’s also one of the spiciest dishes on the menu. Of course, though Monsoon Siam may bring the heat, you’ll also find dishes that pack a punch with big flavor and a little spice, too, plus vegetarian and vegan options. At Thai 99, choose your own spice preference and take advantage of a full bar while enjoying old-fashioned, authentic Thai cuisine.

Here's one to try: the coastal shrimp curry at Milan is a favorite. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Here’s one to try: the coastal shrimp curry at Milan is a favorite. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Indian

Milan Indian Cuisine

Keep calm and curry on
Enjoy the taste of authentic Indian cuisine at Milan

Imagine quelling your hunger pangs with a tender chicken breast roasted in a clay oven and sautéed with spiced spinach in herbs, or rewarding yourself with a steaming plate of lamb morsels simmered in an aromatic Makhni sauce as a midday treat. You don’t have to travel the 7,500 miles to New Delhi to sink your teeth into a dish like either of these. Milan Indian Cuisine (pronounced “mill-in,” not “mee-lawn,” FYI) serves fresh, exotic plates daily. We asked server Rohan Vats to share the five (-ish) menu items diners are skipping over—but shouldn’t.

1) Chicken curry and/or chicken khatta meetha. Find these on the lunch buffet menu, offered seven days a week. (Vats also says Lamb Mango, a lunch entrée featuring curried lamb cooked with mangoes and aromatic spices, is an oft-overlooked choice.)

2) Coastal shrimp curry. Inspired by dishes in the coastal region of Western India, this dinner dish tempers curry with coconut.

3) Seafood Goan curry. A customary seafood dish, especially in the Indian region of Goa, that is drenched in a rich curry sauce. Though it is prepared with a choice of salmon, shrimp or scallops in a spiced coconut sauce, Vats recommends the shrimp option. “It’s a traditional southern style Indian dish from areas where seafood is famous, like in parts bounded by the sea,” Vats says.

4) Bombay potatoes. While seafood and poultry are the stars of many of the dishes included on Milan’s menu, there are a number of vegetarian options, too. Bombay Potatoes, which Vats described as a giant entrée of “pan fried potatoes with no sauces; a special kind of potatoes.”

5) Lamb Rogan Josh. This is Vats’ personal favorite dish on the menu. The plate of tender lamb morsels cooked in a traditional Kashmiri curry sauce is offered as a lunch entrée.—K.S.

Runner-up: Maharaja and Himalayan Fusion (tie)
Honorable mention: Royal Indian Restaurant

Italian

Tavola

Runner-up: Lampo
Honorable mention: Bella’s Restaurant
The best Italian joint in town just got Italianer: In addition to its always reliable menu of salads, pastas and sinful desserts (don’t even think about sharing), the Belmont spot recently expanded to include a cicchetti bar, which is good news for frequent diners. The restaurant’s out-the-door lines are a thing of the past (and the new inventive cocktail menu —plus a selection of apps—is in). Newcomer Lampo wows the Italophile crowd with authentic Neapolitan pizzas just over the Belmont bridge from the Downtown Mall.

French

C&O

Runner-up: Fleurie
Honorable mention: The Alley Light
At C&O, chef Dean Maupin’s menu of mostly classic American dishes has us asking why it’s landed this year’s best French title. But, let’s go back in time. Open for nearly four decades, C&O is a perennial favorite, and at its inception, the food was all French. Even now, the Water Street restaurant has similar values to those of the French—exquisitely prepared cuisine and undeniable ambiance. At Fleurie, this year’s runner-up, you’ll find a modern French menu with dishes like roasted beef, gnocchi Parisienne, creamed leeks and bordelaise.

Loren Mendosa says he can't take all the credit for his new best chef status. Lampo's three other co-owners deserve the accolades, too. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Loren Mendosa says he can’t take all the credit for his new best chef status. Lampo’s three other co-owners deserve the accolades, too. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Chef

Loren Mendosa (Lampo)

Best chef burden
It’s a team effort, insists Mendosa
Loren Mendosa sort of grimaces when congratulated for being voted best chef. “It’s silly,” he says. “I can’t claim to be best chef.” With Lampo’s open-source kitchen in which anyone can come up with a dish, it’s not a traditional space. “There’s no executive chef barking orders,” he says.

And he says the “best of” accolades—Lampo is also best new restaurant—wouldn’t have happened without partners Andrew Cole, Mitchell Beerens and Ian Redshaw. Nonetheless, the best chef nomenclature this year is his personal cross to bear.

It was Mendosa’s growing up in a hippie-like commune and farm in northern Nelson County that led to his path of best chef-dom. “Farm to table wasn’t a thing when I was a kid,” he says. “We grew vegetables and raised animals and ate them.” And it was at Shannon Farm that he first started making meals to feed the four families that lived there.

From the farm, he went to some of the best restaurants in the area, starting with an apprenticeship at the Mark Addy Inn. He met former Hamiltons’ chef Gail Hobbs-Page. “She introduced me to the restaurant scene in Charlottesville,” he says, and he worked at C&O, Mas and most recently, pre-Lampo, at Tavola.

As an owner of this year’s hot new restaurant, things are going surprisingly well. “We were conservative in our planning and projections, and have destroyed all those,” he says. They’re planning to expand outside seating to bring capacity up to around 40, and a new walk-in refrigerator is in the works because it’s a multi-day process to make the Neapolitan-certified dough for their in-demand pizzas and they tend to sell out. Sounds like best chef problems.

Then we asked Mendosa the really tough questions.—L.S.

What’s your favorite Lampo pizza?

The Hellboy, an homage to Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn. It uses scorpion-pepper hot sauce infused into honey, and with the sopressata. It’s an awesome balance of sweet, salty and acidic. It’s our bestseller.

Comfort food?

Pasta—baked ziti.

Guilty pleasure?

Taco Bell. [He cringes at the thought of seeing this in print.]

What’s always in your frig?

Condiments, mostly empty, because I don’t cook at home.

Advice to a new restaurateur?

Be patient. Everything takes longer than you think it will.

Runner-up: Dean Maupin (C&O)
Honorable mention: Craig Hartman (BBQ Exchange)

Vegetarian-friendly

Revolutionary Soup

Runner-up: Feast!
Honorable mention: Parallel 38
Time was we could choose from only a handful of restaurants in town for veggie-friendly fare, but now it’s much easier to find, and savvy readers know just where to look. Downtown and on the Corner, Rev Soup heats up the menu with meat-free salads and sandwiches, plus, of course, soups, like the always-reliable spicy Senagalese tofu. In the Main Street Market, Feast! offers up a robust cheese counter, breads, olive oils and other gourmand goodies. Dining in? Try The Local Panini: Caromont goat cheese, olive and artichoke tapenade, roasted tomatoes and arugula on ciabatta bread.

Fried chicken

Wayside Chicken

Runner-up: Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
Honorable mention: The Whiskey Jar
No need to bawk about it. There’s a clear winner here again this year: Wayside Chicken, which for 50 years has been frying up tender, not-too-greasy breasts, wings and thighs for those birders who can find parking in the pint-sized lot off JPA. Readers agree, though, that the Charlottesville staple is still worth it after all these years. Speaking of pint-sized, Ace Biscuit’s tiny post on Henry Avenue is just big enough to hold delicious breakfast specialties like chicken and waffles with hot sauce and syrup.

A creative menu is important to Dr. Ho's owner Michael McCarthy. "I get tired of everything being like everything else," he says. Photo: Christian Hommel
A creative menu is important to Dr. Ho’s owner Michael McCarthy. “I get tired of everything being like everything else,” he says. Photo: Christian Hommel

Pizza

Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie

Basic kneads
The secret to Dr. Ho’s success

When Michael and Nancy McCarthy bought Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie in 2007, the menu included a few pizzas, stromboli and some salads. Today, diners have their choice of more than a dozen salads and sandwiches, the same number of appetizers and of course pizzas. Lots of pizzas.

The long-time favorite pie at the popular North Garden restaurant is the Bellissima, a margherita ’zza topped with local shaved country ham, arugula, lemon vinaigrette and aged Parmesan. The Humble Pie (green peppers, caramelized onions, mushrooms, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mozzarella and cheddar) is also a must-try, as is McCarthy’s shaved beet salad and his spicy fried calamari. (A serious fan of Asian-inspired food, McCarthy says he puts an Asian twist on it by tossing the calamari in a sesame ginger vinaigrette and topping it with peanuts, cilantro, scallions, jalapeños and a sweet chili glaze.) And then there are the NacHos, made with chili-rubbed braised beef, cheddar, house pickled jalapeños, roasted corn salsa, Poblano lime cream and scallions.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” explains McCarthy, the former chef de cuisine at the Ivy Inn. “We’re just taking classic dishes that have been around forever and doing what we do to them. I get tired of everything being like everything else.”

After several years, McCarthy was so successful doing what he does that he’d outgrown his 37-seat restaurant. “When we got bigger [in 2013], we built a full-blown kitchen with a six-burner stove and deep fryers, which really allowed us to expand our menu,” he says. And he takes a long, hard look at that menu every six to eight months. “If things aren’t selling, we’re not going to keep them.”

A lot of his ingredients are from area farmers, but “I can’t make a margherita pizza year-round with local tomatoes,” McCarthy admits. “I have people coming to the back door all the time with bags of produce. I don’t need it, but I take it anyway and incorporate it into the menu. I have a big garden and I go to the Nelson County farmers market every week. I do what I can.”

When asked about the success of Dr. Ho’s, he pauses, and finally says, “It’s a huge mystery. I don’t know why people drive from Charlottesville or Lynchburg or Washington, D.C., or Baltimore.” But after a few seconds, McCarthy adds, “Not everything in life has to be so refined, so pretentious and froufrou. We serve good, honest food for an honest price.”—S.S.

Runner-up: Lampo
Honorable mention: Christian’s Pizza

Burger

Citizen Burger Bar

Runner-up: Riverside Lunch
Honorable mention: Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint
Meaty. Juicy. Spicy. A mouth full. No, we don’t know how your date went on Friday. We’re just trying to describe for you the deliciousness that is the Citizen burger. A perennial winner since appearing on the grass-fed beef scene in 2012, it topples the competition with a pared-down menu of patties piled high with everything from a fried farm egg to foie gras. Runner-up Riverside is a local favorite—a perfect no-frills, smashed-with-a-spatula burger worthy of its 80-year pedigree. Go for the double…or go home.

BBQ

BBQ Exchange

Runner-up: Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
Honorable mention: Belmont Bar-B-Que
There’s something about the smell of home-cooked barbecue that’s practically irresistible. So irresistible, in fact, that readers say the drive to Gordonsville is just par for the course to tender, hickory-smoked pork shoulders and spare ribs. But don’t stop there. Order a side of owner Craig Hartman’s special spicy slaw and wash it down with a glass of sweet tea before heading out with a doggie (piggy?) bag: one pound of ’cue to go, please! Back in town, Ace’s pulled pork is great as a sandwich or a bowl, and it takes second place.

Wild Wing owner Chad Ragland says on Super Bowl Sunday, he makes 18,000 chicken wings. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
Wild Wing owner Chad Ragland says on Super Bowl Sunday, he makes 18,000 chicken wings. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Wings

Wild Wing Café

Winging it
Wild Wing Cafe owner shares cooking secrets

A dozen years and millions of wings ago, Chad Ragland bought the Wild Wing Cafe franchise in the Amtrak station building on West Main Street, and the business is still booming.

“We’re always using a fresh product and we have a different cooking process: We bake ours right before we run them to the table. That’s our last step, not just saucing and putting them on the plate,” says Ragland, who was a loyal Wild Wing customer when he bought the biz in 2003 in an effort to keep it open, and has kept patrons flocking to the restaurant for the walls of big screen TVs and the rooftop patio with passing trains for entertainment.

While the restaurant sells much more than wings—nachos, sandwiches, salads, wraps and burgers round out the menu—it’s wings that are the biggest sellers. On a football game day, the Wing sells 9,000-10,000, Ragland estimates, and on the biggest day of the year, Super Bowl Sunday, that number soars to 18,000, with the most popular being Wild West, a not-so-spicy ranch flavor.

Ragland says the Wild Wing corporation is in a growth phase, and he’s focused on continuing to build partnerships in the community, including catering UVA athletic events and hosting student functions.

The best part about running the popular wingery?

“There are so many things going on, so many balls in the air, it’s good for my ADD,” says Ragland, who’s now considering opening new locations in Northern Virginia and Richmond.—C.S.

Runner-up: Beer Run
Honorable mention: Buffalo Wild Wings

Frozen treat

Splendora’s Gelato

Runner-up: Chap’s
Honorable mention: SweetFrog
If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s the unofficial motto at Splendora’s, where owner PK Ross reliably stocks staples (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry) and customer favorites (salted caramel, pistachio) every day. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t experiment. Ross has been known to branch out—sometimes, to our delight, way out—with flavors like goat cheese honey fig or Gorgonzola dolce with wine-soaked pears. A few doors down, Chaps scoops up second place with homemade ice cream from family recipes used for over 75 years.

Non-frozen treat

Sweethaus

Runner-up: MarieBette
Honorable mention: Albemarle Baking Co.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for…cupcakes! That might not be how the saying goes, but when readers want a treat that melts in their mouth and not in their hand, they turn to Sweethaus, the West Main Street bakery known for its shelves of old-timey candies and, of course, mini and regular-size cupcakes in more than 15 flavors daily. New to the scene, MarieBette takes second place with Euro-inspired desserts like the petit kouign-amann, a buttery, flaky pastry that, if you ask us, could be eaten for breakfast just as easily as dessert.

Kids’ menu

Sticks Kebob Shop

Runner-up: Tip Top
Honorable mention: Blue Mountain Brewery
An element of danger. That’s what readers say, this year, is what they’re looking for in a kids’ menu, and they look no further than Sticks Kebob Shop. Sure, a meal on a skewer may seem like an odd choice for a precocious youngster with an active imagination (it’s a sword! It’s a kitana!), but stuff them silly with chicken kebobs, and they’ll forget all about the bow and arrow before them. When they’re looking for a less interactive meal, readers head to Tip Top on Pantops for a classic pancake breakfast and then some.

Food truck

South Fork

Runner-up: Carpe Donut
Honorable mention: Got Dumplings
Fridays After Five, Champion Brewing Co., UVA Grounds. South Fork gets around, so we never have to go too far to snag a few crispy strips of Southern fried chicken with chipotle barbecue sauce or a side of hand-cut fries from owner Phillip Gerringer’s popular mobile kitchen. Not too far behind (in readers’ estimation, but also sometimes geographically) is Carpe Donut, where you’ll find sugary sweet apple cider donuts under the roof of Matt Rohdie’s charming red cart.

Place to watch the game

Citizen Burger Bar

Runner-up: Wild Wing Café
Honorable mention: Boylan Heights
There’s nothing more you like at the end (or, if you’re feeling risky, the middle) of a long, hard day than a cold Virginia brewski and a big-screen TV. And readers know there’s no better place to get both than at Citizen, which, on big game days, is packed with sports fans cheering, jeering and nearing cardiac arrest as they nervously stuff their faces with The Southern burger and wash it down with a tall glass of local brew. Over by the train tracks, Wild Wing Café offers a safe haven for sports lovers, plus irresistible wings in more than 30 flavors.

Spot when the boss is buying

C&O

Runner-up: Mas
Honorable mention: Downtown Grille
We’re not saying you should take advantage of your employer’s generosity (not officially), but if you were, C&O, with its cozy bar downstairs and its white tablecloths upstairs, offers plenty of options for a profesh night out. Go early and grab a glass of vino before heading to the table. Order the Cuban steak and throw in an appetizer. By the end of the meal, you may even feel like offering to leave the tip. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, we say. In Belmont, Mas offers a more casual, tapas-centric environment. If you’re brokering a big deal, though, you’ll want to sit away from the busy bar, lest you accidentally bite off more than you can chew, work-wise, simply due to the hustle and bustle.

 

By Samantha Baars, Lisa Provence, Kathleen Smith, Susan Sorensen, Courteney Stuart and Caite White