Crepes are dainty, right? They’re carefully plated with drizzles. They’re dusted with powdered sugar. They’re prized for being as thin as the chef can make them.
They’re about as dangerous as Rachael Ray’s housecat.
Not Downtown at The Flat. These are street food crepes. These are flour-based vehicles for stuffing delicious ingredients in your maw. These are soak-through-the-wrapper flavor bombs. Hell, these things were inspired by a visit to Scotland.
“I would make crepes at home growing up,” Flat owner Lauren McRaven said. “Then I was in Edinburgh and there were these stands there. They were open ’til 3am, quick and easy, and more interesting than a hamburger.”
McRaven thought a crepe stand might do well in Charlottesville, and in 2005, she opened The Flat. She and a handful of employees have been wrapping sweet and savory crepes to go ever since.
“Everything is made to order,” she said. “We try and do as many local ingredients as we can. We have some pre-set combinations that we know are good, and people can build their own.”
The Flat is the type of place that inspired the phrase “hole in the wall.” It’s no bigger than a walk-in closet and feels crowded for just two people. But that’s really all the space the joint needs. In the morning before opening, McRaven and another employee elbow past each other as they cook local meats on a hot plate and grill up veggies on the same cast iron cooker they use to make the crepes. They mix the batter a day in advance to allow the “glutens to set up” and let the air settle out of the mixture, and everything is prepped and ready to go when the restaurant opens at 11am.
“A lot of places start with a pre-made mix, which we don’t do,” McRaven said. “Other places will make the crepes and stack them and reheat them.”
McRaven says her most popular crepe is the Southside of Heaven, named, as many of her crepes are, for a musician who has played The Jefferson Theater (in this case Ryan Bingham). This singer-songwriter’s delight is a fistful of Rock Barn sausage, grilled onions, spinach, cheddar, and chevre cheese. When it all hits the cooktop, it looks like it wouldn’t hurt for a sauce to bring it together, but after plenty of time on the heat to melt the cheddar and a couple of folds, it’s a cohesive package. A Hot Pocket with class.
The Southside eats like a Scottish post-pub feast. The cheese mixture (which ends up tasting more like gooey American after it goes molten) and rendered sausage could use a few more veggies to balance their richness, but the Rock Barn pork is a well-cast star. This is sausage that doesn’t hide behind big spices or herbs—it’s just straight up sausagey. If you’re into something lighter, McRaven recommends the Temptation of Adam, an apple and brie mixture that pairs well with Rock Barn ham. And that’s before you even get to the list of dessert crepes.
As for the crepes themselves, the standard version is made with both whole wheat and white flour, and The Flat offers a gluten-free and vegan take, as well. While the crepes don’t bring much flavor on their own, they’re an unobtrusive and nicely-textured wrap. Certainly they’re superior to the moo shu pancake. Could they someday be the equal of the ubiquitous flour tortilla?
“I don’t know, maybe in Charlottesville,” McRaven said. “We’ve been here eight years now, and we are pretty well known.”
To speed the crepe’s ascent, McRaven is in the process of launching a Flat food truck. It’s a move that makes a lot of sense given the restaurant’s current setup is actually smaller than what you’d find in a mobile kitchen.
A couple words of advice to make sure you get the most out of your first trip to The Flat. One, it’s cash only, so don’t walk up there waving plastic. Two, the menu is written in chalk and can get hard to read, so ask for a recommendation or have a quick look at the menu online before you go. And three, call ahead to place your order during prime mealtimes, or prepare to be patient. By the looks of the line outside The Flat on a Saturday morning, the tortilla could be in trouble.