Why do so many chefs love Riverside Lunch?
Don’t get me wrong—I love it too. Few things hit the spot like a Riverside burger. But this is the era of local food, where chefs preach the gospel of local sourcing and other responsible food practices. Yet they regularly allow themselves to “cheat” at Riverside.
Take Matt Greene, chef, butcher and co-owner of JM Stock Provisions, a shop whose guiding principles, he says, are firm and unwavering. “Everything we source comes locally,” says Greene, “completely pasture-raised, grass-finished beef, and entirely from farmers with whom we have a very close and personal relationship.” This is a way of life for Greene, a father of two who is careful about how he feeds his family. “We believe it’s the right thing to do,” he says. While he and his wife allow greater flexibility at home, “Riverside is the only exception for which we will go out of our way,” says Greene. “It’s everything I want in a restaurant.”
Over burgers at Riverside, Greene explains why it earns an exception. The biggest reason, he says, is consistency, both in food and service. As a business owner, Greene has learned how important—and difficult—consistency can be. “I am in awe of what Riverside has been able to accomplish,” Greene says. Not only do they produce the exact product every day, he says, but they also provide the same great service, feeling and atmosphere.
“There are probably two dozen restaurants on the planet that can boast that kind of consistency,” says Greene, “and one of them is Riverside Lunch in Charlottesville, Virginia.”
“It’s always the same,” agrees Timbercreek Market chef Tucker Yoder—from the greasy burger to the friendly, attentive service. “These things can’t be said about the so-called ‘best’ restaurants in town.”
Riverside’s consistency is by design. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” explains owner Carroll Shifflett, who bought Riverside in 2007, but didn’t change a thing. Founded in 1935, Riverside has never wavered from its ways or bended to trends like the local food movement. It has even used the same gas flat-top for decades, which survived a fire in 2000 at the restaurant’s former location before being moved to its current site on Hazel Street. “That’s the seasoning!” Shifflett says of the grill.
Every morning Riverside calls the butcher at Reid Super-Save Market to place the day’s beef order. Reid’s butchers then grind the requested amount in an 80/20 lean-to-fat blend of chuck, round and sirloin. One butcher, now 82, says it has been this way since before he started at Reid’s in 1968.
At 71, Shifflett still can recall the first Riverside burger his father bought him, in 1958. To this day, the taste of the burgers takes him back. Area chefs relive similar childhood memories at Riverside. “What makes Riverside the exception to the local sustainable movement is the nostalgia,” says Lampo’s Loren Mendosa. “Riverside reminds me of burgers with my dad.”
Riverside’s origin in an earlier era is another reason Greene grants it an exception or, as he calls it, a “grandfather clause.” Just as we may forgive beloved grandparents of transgressions they do not perceive as wrong, so too Greene hesitates to judge a restaurant that began its stretch of sustained excellence nearly a century ago.
The main reason so many chefs go to Riverside, though, is that it is so darned good. Greene and I have the exact same standard order: double cheeseburger “all the way,” which means with lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard, onions and relish. Shifflett’s favorite is also a cheeseburger all the way, though these days he opts for just a single. For the burgers, Riverside cooks quarter-pound spheres of freshly ground beef. Next comes the restaurant’s signature move: flattening the spheres into thin patties directly on the grill. Shifflett says this is just the way it’s always been done. But, from a culinary perspective, it works wonders by exposing maximal surface area to the grill, enhancing the Maillard reaction (think: crispy caramelization) and creating more flavor. “It’s the perfect burger,” says Greene.
Though many stick to burgers, there’s other good stuff on Riverside’s menu. Mendosa swears by the BLT, which he calls “the best in town.” And the cheesesteak, fried pickles and fried mushrooms are all worthy of your favorite bar. Shifflett also touts made-from-scratch soups offered in cooler weather, particularly vegetable and bean.
But, in the end, it’s the outstanding burgers that have kept people coming back for more than 80 years.
Greatness is rare in any medium. Well done, Riverside.
C. Simon Davidson also writes the restaurant blog, charlottesville29.com.