Perfect pairings: Finding the right combination of food, drinks, and personalities during Restaurant Week



The Classics

The Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head Inn and Aberdeen Barn

Sometimes the best way to judge a restaurant is to order the simplest thing on the menu and see how the kitchen executes it. Chefs can hide behind fancy techniques and obscure ingredients, but when it comes to the application of heat to raw food, who does it best?

Aberdeen Barn has been putting fine cuts of beef to open flames for nearly 50 years, following a formula that works in just about every city in the steak-loving U.S. of A. Restaurant co-owner Angela Spathos said most of the menu her father wrote in 1965 is still intact, with the exception of a few trendy cuts that have been added and an increased focus on seafood as it’s become easier to source fresh fish.

Still, the house’s specialty beef cut, the prime rib, remains Aberdeen’s flagship. Spathos says the restaurant sets its prime rib apart by roasting it overnight in a cook-hold oven, which allows the chef to bring the meat to temperature and keep it there, acting as the air-convection version of a sous vide machine.

“It comes out too rare, and we bring it up to temperature,” Spathos said. The chef will also sear the cut off if the diner prefers.

And the perfect accompaniment to the prime rib? If you thought it would be anything other than a classic, you’re not following. It’s the sautéed mushrooms, according to Spathos, with creamed spinach a close second.

Not to be outdone in age or historical significance, The Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head Inn is built around a structure that’s been standing since 1834. The restaurant serves traditional American cuisine, but there’s a new foreman at the mill who’s looking to instill some modernity as well. Bill Justus joined the team last August, and the latest menu, which launched in early January, reflects his focus on using classic techniques to transform fresh, local ingredients.

Case in point, Justus favors hearty braised meats during the winter months and is serving a braised veal cheek with an apple celery puree as a starter on the new menu, as well as a braised lamb shank with mushroom risotto as an entrée.

“I don’t know if I have a favorite ingredient, but I do like working with mushrooms at this time of year,” Justus said.

Roast prime rib au jus with shaved horseradish from Aberdeen Barn. Photo: Elli Williams


The Road trips

Bavarian Chef and da Luca

Got a fuel-efficient vehicle and a designated driver? These two spots outside city limits are worth checking out.

Bavarian Chef is the old dog in the fight, a second-generation staple way up Route 29. It’s been around since 1974, but Chef Jerome Thalwitz is doing his best to keep his family’s classic German dishes from getting staler than the beer at the bottom of the stein.

“We’re a traditional German restaurant, with some American culture fusion,” Thalwitz said. “We develop our own recipes with our own twist. [Americans’] palates have gotten so sophisticated that we like spicing up traditional German dishes. We’re not just sausage and beer.” That means taking the traditional schnitzel, for example, and turning it into the restaurant’s Rueben Schnitzel, or topping German sausages with crispy fried onions.

Brotzeit pretzel with bier cheese from Bavarian Chef. Photo: Elli Williams

Da Luca, on the other hand, is so young it’s almost cute. The restaurant’s only been around for four years, and its chef, Ryan High, has a boyish grin and laugh that may give you the impression he’s not much older. (He’s 25.) The Crozet spot in the Old Trail Village serves up tapas, but as with Bavarian Chef, bucking tradition is common at Da Luca.

“I like layered flavors,” High said. “We’re all over the board in terms of influence. I try to keep it colorful and figure out ways to use product efficiently but present it in a way that’s worth paying for.”

High is on a pancetta kick these days—he prefers it to bacon for the saltiness it lends to dishes like the shrimp and grits—and he serves it up with a smile you’ll find refreshing if you get tired of waiting in line at a certain Charlottesville-based tapas outlet.

Oh, and about that designated driver. Bavarian Chef might not be “just sausages and beer,” but it still serves up plenty of lager and ale with its food. And Da Luca, as with most tapas restaurants, is all about a lengthy, raucous dining experience that gives you time to enjoy the wine bar’s vino and cocktails. So yeah, remember to flip a coin and make someone in your party guide the crew back to Charlottesville at the end of the night.

Chef Ryan High of da Luca, with Moroccan-spiced bigeye tuna with quinoa and wasabi pesto. Photo: Elli Williams