In Charlottesville as elsewhere, the local food movement is at a crossroads. For all its successes, of which there are many, some see it is a fad near its end. Others say that eating local is beyond fashion—a way of life since the beginning of time that is here to stay.
Those who forecast the demise of the farm-to-table trend typically cite one reason: money. Local ingredients often cost more, which can leave restaurants torn between serving local food and keeping a menu affordable. Over time, skeptics say, price is destined to dominate, particularly as the buzz around local eating fades.
In Charlottesville, where locavorism is alive and well, many restaurants offer local food, but none is more devoted to it than Brookville, which chef Harrison Keevil opened in 2010 with his wife, Jennifer. Perched on the second floor above The Whiskey Jar at the west end of the Downtown Mall, the exposed-brick dining room features the most locally sourced food in town.
Some restaurants claiming to be local obtain less than 30 percent of their ingredients from local sources. At Brookville, Keevil says that figure is north of 90 percent. Keevil’s ultimate aim is 100 percent local sourcing, but he is still hung up on a few ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, and other spices. While Keevil acknowledges that eating local can cost more, he views it as his role to educate customers why it is worth it, citing reasons like personal health and supporting the community. “I believe chefs have a responsibility to buy from local farmers,” said Keevil. But, in the end, he said, it all comes down to quality. “It has to taste good.”
Now he’s speaking my language. Whatever the virtues of local food may be, if it tasted bad, I wouldn’t eat it. Fortunately, the Charlottesville area is blessed with a bounty of beautiful produce and talented artisans. Eating local here is not just possible. It’s delicious.
One consequence of Keevil’s commitment to local produce is that his menu changes almost daily, based on the best of what’s available. This is an exciting way to cook, and also to eat. It breaks free from a formula of success followed by many venerable Charlottesville restaurants: Maintain a menu of reliable favorites that establishes and retains a fleet of regular customers. An undeniable virtue of that formula is consistency. Customers know what to expect.
Brookville, by contrast, is for diners who like to eat the way Forrest Gump likes to live: You never know what you’re going to get. To be sure, never does a dud emerge from Brookville’s kitchen. Rather, as Keevil puts it: “There’s been stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t, but that’s always going to be the case.” A recent dinner where we ordered literally everything on the menu confirmed that dishes at Brookville can range from good to outstanding.
A “shortstack” fell into the latter category—ethereal pancakes of squash, herbs, and chevre, topped with microgreens, resting in a pool of maple syrup ($11). Another standout, fried chicken and waffles, incorporated two of Keevil’s most frequent ingredients: bacon and eggs. A fried chicken leg and a fried egg rested atop a bacon-studded waffle, dressed with arugula, hot sauce, and maple syrup ($24). Bacon also appears in Keevil’s famous made-to-order chocolate chip cookies. Yet, for a devout carnivore, Keevil also has a way with vegetables, as shown by one of the best dishes of the night: a ragout of tomato, peppers, green beans, and onions with polenta, a slow-cooked egg, and smoked Piedmont cheese ($18).
At lunch, which Brookville recently re-introduced, the menu is more stable, with stellar results. It doesn’t hurt that it features what Keevil calls his desert-island food: sandwiches. My favorite is the same as Keevil’s, and, as it turns out, his mother. “Mom’s Favorite,” as it is called stuffs house roast beef and sliced tomatoes between grilled fresh bread, slathered with Duke’s mayo ($12). The brunch menu is likewise more steady than dinner, with customer favorites like BFPs—Big…er Fluffy Pancakes, the size of a plate, available one for $9 or two for $16, with the option of bacon mixed in for $2 more.
Keevil cringes when he hears local food described as a fad. “I wish it wasn’t a trend,” he said. Although he recognizes that the boom has helped business, Keevil hopes to convert trend-chasers into locavores for life, one delicious dish at a time.