Much in the way that giving directions to a newcomer will never not be thrilling (or is that just us?), recommending an essential dining experience is also a rite of passage: It ups your townie cred and, if you’ve steered the novice correctly, shows off our local culinary aptitude. The food scene here continues to change and grow, but what follows is our list of dependable recommendables—those classic Charlottesville foods that make us excited to keep eating here indefinitely. They’re just as good now as they were the day we found them (once someone steered us in the right direction).
ALL IN ONE
Deli-Egg at Bodo’s
Bodo’s Deli-Egg isn’t just delicious. It also solves a problem.
“You get to a point where you’re slicing deli meat, and you have an undersized heel you don’t want to use for a sandwich,” says Scott Smith, co-owner of the venerable bagel vendor.
Bodo’s didn’t come up with the idea—it’s an old New York Jewish deli trick—but Smith and his team have taken it a step further. Because they’re not kosher, they’ve added ham, capicola, salami and Swiss, muenster and provolone cheese to the traditional deli egg mixture of pastrami and corned beef.
The result is one of Bodo’s most popular items. Indeed, the sandwich shop sells so much deli egg, they end up using far more cured meat than just the stuff that comes from the unused ends.
Smith says most folks are straight down the middle with their egg sandwich orders—Deli-Egg on an everything bagel is most popular. But some add more meat and cheese, usually bacon and cheddar, or balance out the richness with some punchy pepper spread.
Smith’s pro tip? Try the Deli-Egg a couple times before you make up your mind about it. The meat and cheese contents can vary depending on what’s available to chop on any given day.
Bagels for all!
The importance of Bodo’s is one of the first things that newcomers to Charlottesville figure out, and this is good because it helps them to feel like insiders very quickly. On weekends especially, the whole of Charlottesville goes to Bodo’s as a sort of pilgrimage, where we encounter dozens of people we know or at least recognize: neighbors, Little League teammates, friends from churches and synagogues, ex-girlfriends.
One essay extolling Bodo’s as the best bagels in the world went viral last year. It was controversial, and even many locals raised an eyebrow at Bodo’s really being the world’s best, but the fact is that the food is solid. Yet we live in a golden age of food. There are plenty of good restaurants in Charlottesville. Why is this one so important?
Look back to 1988 when Brian Fox opened the first Bodo’s location on Emmet Street. In those days, the Downtown Mall was mostly dead and the restaurant scene was dull. Charlottesville was a funky town with a lot of creative, well-educated former hippies who tended to land here due to UVA. Many of those migrants, including Fox, had spent time in New York City and had fond memories of the cuisine they had left behind.
Making properly boiled New York-style bagels was exactly the right idea at the right time. For ex-pat New Yorkers, it was like a taste of home for just a few bucks. For everyone else, there was a sort of sophistication in pretending to know what a good New York-style bagel was supposed to be.
This meant that a certain kind of person went to Bodo’s. Smart, well-traveled, New York-savvy intellectuals. Other people wanted to be around those people. Good food, good company and lightning-fast service were arguably the main ingredients that made Bodo’s into an institution (rather than just a restaurant).
WE’D WAIT FOREVER
Huevos Bluemoonos at Blue Moon Diner
Everyone’s favorite greasy spoon may be closed until 2018, but that doesn’t mean Blue Moon’s take on huevos rancheros—two eggs any style over hash browns with melted cheddar, salsa and toast—should be left off the list. We love having something to look forward to.
Shirley’s potato salad at Foods of All Nations
For more than 40 years, Foods of All Nations has been dishing out this picnic staple. Store manager Geoffrey Garbaccio says it’s named for the late Shirley Ladd, an employee who brought what she said was an old family recipe to the store. “I have heard that it was slightly different back in the day because it used to have tomatoes in it,” Garbaccio says.
Though today’s version has no such out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, Garbaccio says its quality and consistency keeps customers coming back to the deli counter. “We make it fresh every day—everything [in it] is fresh,” says kitchen manager Carmelo Espino, who estimates that Foods of All Nations serves 40 to 50 pounds of Shirley’s creation daily.
Want to make Shirley’s recipe at home? There’s no standard list of measurements for ingredients (“Enough so it looks and tastes right,” they told us). Here’s what we do know is in it: cooked, peeled and diced white potatoes, diced tomatoes, diced green pepper, diced celery, diced white onion, sweet pickle relish, salt, pepper and mayonnaise.
We could go on and on, but these three treats are no-fail solutions to your post-meal problem (or, like, whenever).
Bronut at MarieBette Café & Bakery
Even if it’s only been on the map for two years, the bakery’s brioche feuilletée is already one for the local pastry canon.
Chocolate gelato at Splendora’s Gelato
While the industry names vanilla as a top seller, Splendora’s chocolate is its most-produced flavor (and for good reason).
Princess cake at Albemarle Baking Co.
Vanilla sponge cake, Bavarian cream and marzipan have us feeling like royalty (just let us grab our crown).
Spicy Senegalese Peanut Tofu Soup at Revolutionary Soup
Rev Soup has so many tasty, steamy pots of goodness, but for a true taste of what put the place on the map, you gotta go vegetarian—in fact vegan and gluten free—and spoon up the Spicy Senegalese Peanut Tofu Soup. The silky texture of the peanuts and tofu get all the edge they need with the addition of spicy jalapeños, scallions and cilantro.
Cup of coffee at Mudhouse
Panama, Ethiopia, Colombia, Nicaragua—wherever there are good beans, there’s John and Lynelle Lawrence, the brains of Mudhouse’s successful operation for more than two decades. They get coffee from all over the world, bring it back to Charlottesville and roast it downtown, just up the street from their flagship mall shop. And their hard work continues to pay off, with plenty of buzz from locals and national press, too, like a recent Roaster of the Year award from Roast Magazine.
Dumplings at Marco & Luca
Cheap, fast, good: They say you can only get two out of three. The exception to the rule? Marco & Luca, where you can get six scrumptious dumplings for $3.50 in under five minutes. Hey, rules are meant to be broken.
Firecracker shrimp at Bang!
We’re just one “bang” away from stepping on the toes of a major national brand here, but Bang!’s take on spicy fried shrimp has certainly made a name in its own right. Perched on an Asian-style slaw and draped with a spicy garlic sauce, the Firecracker Shrimp makes some noise as an app or a shared main.
They haven’t been on the scene as long as some, but update our list of signature dishes in 10 years, and you can bet these five will make an appearance.
Shaved salad at Oakhart Social (above)
Sweet and bitter, creamy and crunchy—this salad has a little bit of everything.
Pork ragu at Tavola
So popular the restaurant has a list of folks to email when it returns to the menu each fall.
Dark chocolate cream pie at The Pie Chest
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If it becomes possible to marry a dessert, we’ll see you at the altar.
Breakfast sandwich at Oakhurst Inn Café
Bacon, egg and cheddar taken to new heights on a buttery brioche roll from Albemarle Baking Co.
Polpettine al forno at Lampo
Six beef and pork meatballs, nestled in a cast iron pan, covered in pomodoro and a generous plop of pecorino.
ALL YOU CAN EAT
By-the-slice at Christian’s Pizza
Pizza is one of those things—like coffee or tacos or, hell, for a while, even cupcakes—
that seem to crop up in bunches around here. Christian’s is the trailblazer, having topped our Best of C-VILLE list in its category more years than we can count for choices like artichoke and spinach or meatball marinara or chicken parm. Are there more sophisticated versions, culinarily speaking? Sure. But nothing tops the toppings at this pizza shop.
A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR
Gooey brownie at Arch’s Frozen Yogurt
Arch’s Frozen Yogurt went the trendy way of self-serve in 2012, but there’s one thing that still sets it apart from the froyo scene’s Johnny-come-latelies: the gooey brownie.
“The students just love it,” says Ramish Azizi, whose family bought the place three years ago. “They come in and just eat gooey brownie. It is basically brownie mix, but we add no eggs, so we can serve it half-baked and almost cooked.”
Azizi recommends trying the topping on pretty much anything, but he says cake batter is a fan fave. Arch’s menu rotates through a flavor of the day along with the usual suspects: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry, peanut butter, cheesecake, mango, etc. On top of straight frozen yogurt, the popular UVA Corner hangout has gelato, yo-cream and Greek yogurt, and Azizi says he’s planning to add ice cream soon.
University students get a discount at Arch’s, and everyone gets the VIP treatment on Tuesdays, when you can pile a single cup as high as you can (gooey brownie included!) for $5.
Red Hot Blues at Continental Divide
Duffy Pappas laughs when you ask him about the Red Hot Blues at Continental Divide. The restaurant owner thinks about food intuitively—what’s there to say about the dish other than it’s blue corn chips with goat cheese, jack cheese, and red onions?
“I couldn’t tell you where it came from,” Pappas says. “It just popped into my head.”
But there’s a bit more to the dish than meets the eye. The appetizer starts with hand-cut, organic blue tortillas, fried in-house and confettied with a top secret blend of spices. (“They are spicy,” Pappas says.)
Then there’s jack cheese and red onions, but the play on nachos takes an oddball turn with a crumbling of goat cheese. “Again, it just kind of came to me that it would taste good, and it did,” Pappas says.
The dish has turned into one of Continental Divide’s top sellers, perhaps behind only the colorful Santa Fe enchiladas, and the kitchen cranks out as many as 100 orders per week.
Hitting the spot
The White Spot has become an important Charlottesville culinary institution since it first opened in the 1950s. It offers standard American greasy spoon fare, but two things have long distinguished the diner. First, the name-sake white spot in the middle of the floor where a chair for a beauty salon was mounted before the restaurant moved in. Second, the Gus burger.
It’s an otherwise conventional hamburger, but with the addition of a fried egg. According to local historian Coy Barefoot, it was named after a doctor who regularly requested the burger in the early 1960s. Gus burgers have fueled the nightlife of generations of UVA students and soaked up vast quantities of alcohol in the stomachs of wobbly barhoppers after the 2am last call. But is the Gus burger really a Charlottesville original?
Sadly, no. With eggs and burger patties sizzling side-by-side at early 20th century diners, it likely didn’t take very long for the first person to place one atop the other. The fried egg burger is nearly as obvious as the cheeseburger or bacon burger. Independent inventions of this probably took place around the United States, just as with the creation of the hamburger.
In 1941, The Santa Rosa News published a recipe calling for a fried egg to be placed on top of a burger. In 1961, diners in Long Island, New York, were serving an egg-topped version called an “Aussie burger” by the supposed inventor Arthur Kinnicutt, who had heard of steak and eggs being something of an Australian national dish.
Dozens of restaurants across the U.S. offer some sort of burger with an egg on top. Serious Eats published a list of its dozen favorites and The White Spot didn’t even make the cut.
On the other hand, none of these other restaurants have seen a celebration of their egg-topped burgers quite so heartily as the White Spot. Certainly none hold an annual Gus burger-eating contest, as does the White Spot each March. In the space of six minutes, UVA students wolf down as many Gus burgers as possible. Nobody’s doing that with Aussie burgers.
GO ALL THE WAY
Double cheeseburger at Riverside Lunch
“First they smash it, then they cook it,” our dining listings have said for years.
If Riverside can’t improve on perfection (smashing it gives each patty a better heat-to-meat ratio, drawing out flavor and creating a crispy carmelization), why should we?
A good drink in this town is just a hop, grape and a jump away.
Jomo from Starr Hill Brewery
In the 16 years since it was first created, this Vienna-style lager from the Crozet brewery hasn’t lost its mojo.
Full Nelson at Blue Mountain Brewery
The spot’s flagship pale ale blends citrus and floral with a view (if you’re out Nelson County way for a visit).
Crosé from King Family Vineyards
A perennial Best of C-VILLE winner, this dry, Merlot-based rosé boasts notes of bitter cherry, peach and rose petal.
THAT’S SO CHEESY
Stumble Down Mac N’ Cheese at The Virginian
“My chefs don’t need a gym membership,” says Bo Stockton, general manager at The Virginian. “They just carry the mac prep upstairs all day.” He’s joking—probably—but the beloved Corner appetizer does require between 35 and 50 pounds of pasta, roughly 15 pounds of potatoes and more cheese than Stockton cares to guess at, every single day.
Fourteen years ago, owner Andy McClure wanted to create a distinctive twist on macaroni and cheese, combining ultra-twisty cavatappi pasta with spicy pepper jack. Head chef Ernesto Salazar added a cheddar potato cake on top for extra crunch, and diners have been demanding it ever since.
“We get told about how people shared their first date over a mac app,” Stockton says, “while there is a photographer taking their picture eating a mac app because they are getting married that weekend.” Just don’t ask him to explain the Stumble Down name. “People have created their own meaning for the name,” he says, “and we like to think that is special!”
IN THE FIRST PLACE
The Jefferson at Bellair Market
When Charlottesville native Mason Hereford’s New Orleans restaurant, Turkey and the Wolf, won Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant award in August, the magazine addressed its rather odd choice—a sandwich shop? Really? But Charlottesville readers knew why: It was Bellair Market’s Jefferson—that sweet and savory sammy of maple turkey, cranberry relish, lettuce, mayo and cheddar on French bread—that inspired the rest of Hereford’s menu. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but we have the original.
GET OUT THE RULER
Foot-long hot dog at Jak’n Jil
Though you may be tempted to try the East High Street spot’s broasted chicken or a cherry milkshake, don’t even think about leaving without one of its “famous” foot-long hot dogs. Topped with homemade chili, mustard and onions, it’s not a meal for the faint of heart (literally—watch your cholesterol, folks), but it still tastes just as good as it did when the shop opened in 1945.
No bawks about it
Whether a fried drumstick or a wing slathered in spicy sauce, this town’s lousy with tasty chicken.
Michie Tavern (above)
Juicy, perfectly seasoned and fried till dark—this Colonial-themed spot’s chicken is a winner.
Wild Wing Café
Thirty-three made-from-scratch sauces, plus beers and big screens.
Wayside Fried Chicken
The peppery coating has kept customers coming back to this JPA spot for more than 40 years.
Fried chicken at Mel’s Soul Food Café
There are dozens of options on the menu at Mel’s, but among other beloved dishes, diners can’t seem to stop raving about the fried chicken. One enthusiastic patron on TripAdvisor called it “the best fried chicken on mother Earth.” Proprietor Mel Walker and his team fry each serving to order from Walker’s family recipe—“just basic flour I season myself,” Walker says—cooking up an estimated 40 pounds of chicken every day. Despite the acclaim, Walker remains humble: “I don’t have a favorite,” he said of the café’s extensive offerings. “I just love cooking.”