Café Cubano changes its stripes, Citizen Burger expands to new locations and more local restaurant news

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Brandon Wooten, Eric Kelley and Brad Uhl are the trio behind Grit Café.
Photo: Eric Kelley Photography. Brandon Wooten, Eric Kelley and Brad Uhl are the trio behind Grit Café. Photo: Eric Kelley Photography.

Café Cubano buyers show Grit

What’s in a name? The group that bought Café Cubano last year is hoping not all that much.

Eric Kelley, who’s owned and operated Para Coffee since 2008, and new partners Brad Uhl and Brandon Wooten are changing the name of the Downtown Mall breakfast bites and coffee spot to Grit Café this week. The three locals have plans to take the concept to their other three locations by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

Wooten said Grit Café will build on the base of the Cubano food offerings to create an eclectic but Southern-focused breakfast and lunch menu. Think Virginia ham, rotating specials drawing on local flavor and, of course, grits.

“It’s going to have a Virginia-Southern feel without being typical Southern food,” Wooten said. “It’s going to be simple, good food.”

To make sure the concept comes off, the team plans to buy from as many local farmers and purveyors as possible and has hired a “really talented chef” to help with menu development, with plans to bring her on full-time in the near future. Wooten said he and his partners are keeping the chef’s name under wraps while they hammer out the details of the arrangement.

The first “full expression” of the concept is expected to come in the second Grit Café, which Wooten said will open “sometime in the next couple of weeks.” The café will be located in the new Ix Studio, a shared workspace premiering in the facility of the same name on December 1, and will offer a coffee bar, full breakfast, lunch fare, and light bites and booze during evening hours.

“We want it to be a true café model, where you can sit there all day and have breakfast, lunch and a glass of wine before you leave for home,” Wooten said.

Para Coffee on the Corner and Crozet-based Trailside Coffee, which the group bought last summer around the time of the Café Cubano acquisition, will be the last to transition to the Grit name and concept. As with the Downtown Mall shake-up, Wooten said he expects Para’s loyal University-based clientele won’t be overly agitated by the changes.

“We’ve tried to talk to as many students and faculty as we can, and what we’ve learned is those people like the fact that it has its character and personality,” Wooten said. “The name doesn’t necessarily represent that.”

Wooten said he and his partners believe the new name better sums up what they’re all about—a truly local café setting where people are free to have a conversation, work quietly or sit down to a full meal with friends. “It’s an alternative to Starbucks,” Wooten said.

Dual citizenship

The folks at Citizen Burger Bar have good news. Unfortunately, it’s not that their average wait times will decrease any time soon. The perennial line-out-the-door lunch/dinner spot and reigning C-VILLE Weekly Best Burger titleholder recently announced it will open a new location in Clarendon by the end of the year.

But wait, there’s more good news from the Citizen camp. (No, it’s not that they are putting in more seats. Please stop asking.) The restaurant group, headed up by owner Andy McClure, has also announced it plans to launch Citizen Taco Bar sometime after the new burger joint opens. Details are sketchy, but what we do know is the restaurant will also unfortunately serve Northern Virginia—McClure is planning to tuck carefully sourced ingredients into D.C. tortillas.

C’ville shouldn’t take the defection of its Citizen too hard. A native of Alexandria, McClure said he’s always wanted to open restaurants in the northern part of the state.

“When Citizen in Charlottesville opened, it was a dream come true,” he said. “Once it opened and was successful, it was, ‘where can I go from here?’ There is a giant market out there for doing [casual] food in a hipper way and more fun way.”

Jack in The Box

Aaron Ludwig decided after a crappy day at work in 2008 that he wanted to try something different. After operating a ski and snowboard shop for 15 years, he and his lifelong buddy Mike Sabin started dreaming up a bar where they’d like to hang out themselves. Six years later, the guys are prepping the former The Box space on Second St. S.E. just off the Downtown Mall for the fifth iteration of Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint, a bar featuring more than 100 beers and a simple menu of burgers, fries and fried Oreos. With a constantly rotating tap selection and the “100 notch club,” which challenges guests to consume and keep track of 100 different brews (local and otherwise), it’s a beer lover’s dream.

Shortly after The Box closed in July of this year, Ludwig said he started getting calls from friends about the space. Jack Brown’s, which originated about an hour away in Harrisonburg, is known for its intentionally intimate interior, with mostly bar seating and a limited number of tables.

“The environment it creates, the conversation sparked because of it,” Ludwig said. “We really wanted to kind of simplify it, make it more of a bar, a place where people just go in, hang out, and feel like they’re somewhere different.”   

No concrete opening date yet, but Ludwig said they’re aiming for first quarter next year.