The cheap date is a tricky proposition. But there are ways to cut corners without necessarily revealing yourself for the broke-ass bounder that you really are. Despite the holdover notion that some here in central Virginia cleave to—the idea that we live in some bastion of Southern rectitude—you needn’t occupy your mind with chivalric conceits. It would be lost on, maybe even looked upon with consternation, by the vast majority of women around here. Let’s face it, these days Albemarle County is about as Southern as Harvey Keitel’s Arkansas drawl in Thelma and Louise.
For instance, there’s not one meat-and-three in the whole burg. And there’s often an acre of empty tables at establishments like Henry’s Restaurant—which serves econo-priced pork chops, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and cocktails—while people wait in lines at sushi joints all up and down the Mall. There is nary a juke joint nor blues bar in the 434 area code. Heck, you can even get store-bought liquor on Sunday. This is essentially Fairfax County with a better view of the mountains and a much longer drive to Ethiopian food.
And there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in any of that. Our town proffers a different small batch blend of eclectic charms from your typical old sleepy Southern hollow. Case in point, much-ballyhooed, The Local in Belmont has half-price bottles of wine until 9pm on Mondays. And nothing says “this relationship is important to me” like a Monday night date. There are excellent pasta plates in the $13-15 range and you can even get protein dishes for under $20. Yeah, twenty smackers is twenty smackers, but come on, you love her and you’re getting pricey wine at beer rates.
If you’re bold enough to employ the Sunday date gambit, you can start going on about how you’re really in the mood for a gourmet burger during the drive Downtown. “You know, I heard Positively 4th Street serves a pretty mean lamb burger,” you say, decisively. “It’s supposed to have feta and spiced pickles and all kinds of stuff on it.” There’s no need to mention that all burgers and sandwiches are half-price on Sundays.
Sal’s Caffe Italia on the Downtown Mall isn’t exactly giving away entrees, but while perusing the menu you can pull the old, “Geez, it all looks so good, maybe we should do it tapas-style.” Then order the arancini rice ball appetizer, lightly breaded, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef that you dip in marinara. They’re terrific and weighty. Add to that the fried ravioli starter, maybe throw in a salad or soup and you’re both stuffed with Italian goodness without breaking the bank. They also have a great $12 personal margherita pizza. Sal’s is one of the few joints around here that has that old school, Teamster-classy feel.
Basil Mediterranean Bistro on the Corner offers a bevy of thoughtfully conceived, meal-scale salads. I tried the salmoni: nicely grilled salmon, moist but sturdy, on mixed greens tossed in a light, creamy Caesar with red onion, mandarin orange slices, Roma tomato, cucumber, and sprinkled parmesan. It’s $14 and Basil has a kind of Costa Brava ambience that lends your date night a fiesta vibe.
For the advanced cheap date daredevil, take a drive north. Three miles beyond the airport turnoff, keep a lookout, and pull into the Bamboo House on the right. Affordable and like nothing else around these parts, the optical centerpiece of the dining area is a diorama of the nuclear deer family. A stuffed daddy buck, mama doe, and a fawn, all set against a lake scene. Scattered about the dining room’s perimeter are all manner of stuffed ducks, squirrels, and foxes. What this place lacks in conventional fine dining prerequisites, it more than makes up for in David Lynchian charm. There’s myriad offerings in both Chinese and Korean cuisine, but ordering from the Korean listings seems to put some pep in the step of the gracious staff.
I had the bibimbap: bulgogi beef (which is sirloin minced and marinated in a sweet soy sauce, seasoned, then laid into spinach), shredded vegetables, kimchi, hot chili oil and sesame oil, bean sprouts, and an egg, done over easy, all on rice. Your server will then carefully mix this wondrous medley just so in a huge bowl. An exquisite concoction at $8.95. There’s beer but no hard liquor. But then, you have drive back to town anyway. Good luck.