Breakfast with national champions, it turns out, is an inspiring start to the day. So I learned on a recent weekday morning with UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor and men’s tennis coach Brian Boland, both defending NCAA champions in their sports. Their takes on success, failure, competition, family and life were so moving that, when I arrived at the office, my head was still spinning.
Our venue was the legendary Blue Moon Diner, an inspiring place in its own right. Buzz White opened the diner in 1979 with a mission, he says, to create “a place for a diverse crowd to enjoy good food without spending an arm and a leg.” That philosophy, White believes, has survived several ownership changes. John Grier, who owned the diner in the mid-1980s, agrees. “Each owner since Buzz took the core of his concept, and while each made contributions to the evolution, it is still recognizable,” says Grier. Current owners Laura Galgano and her husband, Rice Hall, came on board in 2006, and they share the same passion and philosophy that have helped sustain the diner’s success for so long.
In restaurants as in sports, it starts at the top. “Everything that is successful long-term starts with leadership,” says Boland. You have to create a culture.
At Blue Moon Diner, the culture is “a delicate balance of salt, fat and love,” says Galgano. But, as any great coach or restaurateur will tell you, that third ingredient is the most important. It separates the ordinary from the great. Galgano and Hall love food and hospitality, and it shows. “Food has always held a central place in my heart,” says Galgano.
So, while the listed ingredients of my delicious Hogwaller Hash were eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns and peppers, it is without a shred of cynicism that I can say the key ingredient was unlisted: love. What does this mean? It means the food is prepared and served by people who care deeply about the experience of the person consuming it. This care begins with a dish’s sourcing and lasts until the customer has enjoyed it and walked out the door.
“We try to put the effort into making each meal great by taking pride in its individual components,” says Galgano. Sausage is made in-house, as is ice cream, granola and corned beef, which Galgano says can take up to a month to make. The attention to detail works wonders. Case in point, Boland’s choice: the Nordic omelet of smoked salmon, red onion, tomato and scallion cream.
“This may be the best omelet I’ve ever had,” exclaims Boland, “and I’m not even kidding.”
Sometimes made in-house and sometimes sourced from Alaska, the smoked salmon gets a boost from the house-made scallion cream, with diced scallions, sour cream, mayo and spices.
The care even extends to what’s in your mug. “The coffee was great,” says O’Connor. Galgano agrees: “I am utterly addicted to our Trager Brothers Blue Moon Blend coffee,” she says.
Galgano’s favorite food items at Blue Moon Diner look an awful lot like mine. “The apple omelet is one of my favorite flavor combinations,” said Galgano, who also favors the macaroni and cheese, catfish sandwich and buttermilk pancakes, which my pancake-expert children swear are the best in town. While many know the diner for its breakfast, I find lunch and dinner to be just as good, especially the creative weekly specials.
A culture of success and love of what you do are also vital to persevere through the adversity that sports teams and restaurants inevitably face. No one knows this better than O’Connor, who calls last season the most challenging of his tenure. His team plunged from the nation’s No. 1 ranking to depths the team had never experienced before, suffering 24 losses, the most in any of O’Connor’s 12 seasons at Virginia. And yet, his team then won the first national title in program history. Whether in restaurants or sports, “you have to grind it out during adverse times,” says O’Connor. “If your foundation is strong, you have a chance to be successful.”
Galgano says the same is true of restaurants facing tough times. “You have to have enough confidence in what you love to believe that your customers will share in that love,” she says. When that fails, she just falls back on one of her favorite sayings: “It takes a special kind of crazy to run a restaurant.”
Galgano and Hall met as UVA students in the mid-1990s, and first worked together at Martha’s Café, now home to The Pigeon Hole, on the Corner. They also spent several years together at Bizou, but all the while dreamed of owning their own place.
“It would be an integral part of the community for all ages, serve good comfort food from local purveyors and be a home to customer and employee,” Galgano says they envisioned.
If that was their aim, I’d say they won, too.