“I’m no Dave Simpson, and I can’t live up to his spirit,” said C&O Restaurant owner Dean Maupin. “But I certainly reveled in his spirit.”
Simpson, the longtime C&O chef and owner who sold the restaurant to Maupin last year, died Tuesday morning after being hospitalized for a heart attack, according to his brother Mike Simpson.
The son of a city cop, Simpson was born in January 1955 and grew up in Charlottesville. He got his first taste of the food service industry when he was hired at Shoney’s as a teenager. As a young adult, he spent several years on the West Coast, where he worked as a chef at a retirement home, but his nascent cooking career was quickly challenged by the first of many health issues when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue. He underwent intensive radiation therapy in California and Oregon which, according to his brother, put him in remission but caused vascular health issues that plagued him for the rest of his life, and led to a triple bypass surgery 13 years ago.
Despite those intermittent bouts of illness, friends and family say Simpson never sat still and never stopped smiling. Mike Simpson described his brother as an “extraordinarily beautiful father” to his now 18-year-old daughter, Grace, with his former wife, Pat.
Simpson joined the C&O team in the late 1970s, and it wasn’t long before he bought the place. Friends say in his 30-plus years as owner of the C&O, Simpson was known as the guy who gave everybody a chance, and he carved out a safe, welcoming environment with an unflinchingly loyal following.
“He gave people chances, people who were often struggling in life,” Mike Simpson said. “He just had such a sunny view of people.”
Maupin, who got his chance when he showed up at the C&O as a 19-year-old chef in the 1990s, described Simpson as “entirely original,” and said his experience working under him was magical.
“He hired so many different people based on their character, and allowed them to really grow up in his restaurant,” Maupin said. “He was such an original character, and had more friends than anybody I’ve ever known.”
Simpson passed the torch to Maupin, and Maupin has made a concerted effort to keep the beloved restaurant and bar exactly the same.
“Dave sold me his baby, you know?” he said. “He bestowed upon me my life’s dream in a very generous way, and I’m even more inspired to keep true to the spirit of the restaurant.”
Jim Puopolo, who now owns 20 South Catering, grew up spending his afternoons and summers at the C&O, where he’d hang out at the bar for hours and help out with catering events, soaking up all the knowledge, humor, and people skills from Simpson that he could. Puopolo described Simpson as brutally honest, with a distinct sense of humor and the ability to tell it like it is.
“Most chefs and restaurant people are assholes,” Puopolo said with a laugh. “But he did not fit that mold at all. I think that’s what people really loved about him. He was always looking for the good, and just had a huge heart.”
Simpson’s longtime friend turned fianceé Judy Berger said it was ironic that it was ultimately his heart that caused his death.
“His heart was physically very compromised, yet it was so strong and just full of love,” Berger said. “I learned how to love from him, and trust and be patient. He taught me so many things.”
Berger and Simpson had drinks at the C&O for their first date.
“I fell in love with him that night,” she said. “I just knew that this was the person, this was the soul I had been looking for my whole life. We were together 24/7 after that.”
Even in retirement, Berger said Simpson never stopped running around. They recently traveled to Scotland and France and took up backyard gardening. His latest project was constructing a 12′ by 16′ stage at his home for small, non-commercial performances, with a sign that read “Future site of Mickey Rooney Theater.” She said he just wanted a place for friends and family to gather and feel relaxed and at home, not unlike the C&O.
“So many people found refuge in Dave Simpson,” Berger said. “That’s really all I can say.”