We’re not saying summer is the season for drinking (that’s every season), but there’s something about it that makes us want to mingle. The pages that follow will introduce you to barkeeps, regulars and what you should be drinking right now. We’ll even make the case that Charlottesville does, in fact, have a dive bar. Drink up.
Pick your poison
Let the bartender choose your drink—if the time is right
By Shea Gibbs
It’s Saturday night. Eight o’clock. You step up to the bar and tell the ’tender to make you something special. Something off menu. “Dealer’s choice,” you say.
The dealer’s choice can be a wonderful thing—an exploration of your deepest desires and your drink maker’s greatest talents. But do it right.
“I head the bar in a busy, high-volume restaurant,” says Alec Spidalieri of Junction. “The majority of the drinks I’m putting out are going to patrons at tables. So when I get a table’s order from a server of ‘Oh, just make me something,’ that’s a lot of pressure, considering I don’t know you and I can neither see nor speak to you.”
The beauty of the bartender’s choice is working directly with your booze masseuse, letting him or her know your likes and dislikes and interacting in an intimate setting. Don’t assume the doctor’s best mixologisms are off-menu, but let him know if the standard choices aren’t quite hitting your sweet spot.
“We focus strongly on gin,” says Reid Dougherty of Brasserie Saison. “Sometimes I see that look on the guest’s face that says, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
In that case, use your words. Dougherty suggests naming your favorite spirit, saying how boozy you want your drink and orienting yourself between light and heavy.
But, please, don’t forget to explore the menu first, Spidalieri says.
“It baffles me, as a bartender that puts this seasonal cocktail menu together a few times a year, that people think that the best stuff is not on the menu,” he says. “Most of my more original ingredients are prepped for the menu drinks already, too.”
Dougherty agrees. If you want a dealer’s choice, it should be something the two of you can discuss and perfect.
“It’s not just about making the drink, but talking about the drink,” he says. “It’s not just about saying, ‘Hey, is it good?’ It’s about being able to get them involved in the drink. It’s about saying, ‘Next time we make this, how would we change it?’ I want to get them feeling like they’re a part of it.”
Words for your buzz
If you’re planning to put your drinking destiny in the hands of your bartender, make sure you’re speaking his or her language. Here are a few boozewords that should help the conversation.
Base spirit: To start, let your bartender know if you despise gin or love whiskey.
Heavy vs. light: This is all you’ll need to tell your drink dealer to show if you’re into something big and boozy or something more refreshing.
Seasonal: As with farm-to-table cooking, bartenders these days are looking to use the freshest ingredients. This buzzword will put you on the path to drinking summer’s perfect produce.
Effervescent: Sparkling wine and soda do more to a drink than add flavor. The bubbles give the impression of lightness and liven up other flavors.
Bright/citrusy: Companion words to light and effervescent, this will ensure your tippler brings some acidic notes to the table.
Classic cocktails: Old-school drinks tend to have more challenging flavors. If you say you like classic cocktails, you’re showing you want to be adventurous.—SG
What’s it mean to be a regular in Charlottesville?
By Erin O’Hare
It’s no surprise that “Cheers” —a TV show set in a neighborhood bar—is one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. As its tagline suggests, there’s great appeal (and comfort) in going to a place where everybody knows your name. But as regulars at a couple of Charlottesville’s best-loved watering holes insist, the special thing about these places is not that everybody knows your name, it’s that they know you.
“Hey Flezz! What’s happening?” someone calls when Michael Flessner walks through the door of Durty Nelly’s Pub & Wayside Deli on the corner of Fontaine and Jefferson Park avenues.
It’s how Flessner’s greeted by a fellow regular every time he walks into the cozy, wood-paneled bar room. “Every day I walk in this door, if I don’t know nine of the 10 people sitting here, there’s something wrong,” Flessner says.
But usually all is well—“I walk in and I’m home. It’s like, ‘hi family!’”
Flessner has been a Durty Nelly’s regular for four years. He works in the service industry and says that late at night, it’s not easy to find a relaxing, chill place to decompress after a long shift, and whether you want to talk or just be left alone, Durty Nelly’s is that place.
Two years ago, Flessner started helping out at the bar when they needed a hand; now, he works there two or three nights a week and still comes in to hang out when he’s not on the clock, especially when there’s live music.
“The sheer amount of musical talent that walks through that door” is astounding, says Flessner, noting that local acts like The Gladstones and Junior Moment often pack the house. Plus, Lynyrd Skynrd drummer Artimus Pyle has performed there.
Flessner loves many things about Durty Nelly’s—his fellow regulars, the live music, owners Gary Hagar and Toby Breeden who he says “will do anything for you.” But what Flessner loves most about it is that even after decades in business, Durty Nelly’s doesn’t change. “It’s how this place will outlast the rest of ’em,” he says.
On any given weeknight, a group of four Lazy Parrot regulars can be found ordering their usual round: a white Russian, a vodka cranberry with a Fireball shot, cheap draft beer and a bottle of Budweiser.
Whether seated at an indoor table or under an umbrella on the patio, they sip their drinks and talk spiritedly among themselves and to neighboring tables. It’s an after-work ritual they’ve had for 15 years, since they met at the old Lazy Parrot location on the other side of the shopping center.
It’s the only place they go on their way home from work, says the woman who ordered the white Russian, because of the location, the prices and the atmosphere, but mostly for each other.
“We’re good friends; we’ve connected through the years,” says the woman who ordered the vodka cranberry with a shot of Fireball. “We talk about almost everything,” says White Russian, while Vodka Cran nods and murmurs in agreement.
Their friendship may have started at the bar, but it doesn’t end there—with help from other regulars, Vodka Cran threw a baby shower for one of the Lazy Parrot bartenders. And when the woman who ordered a Budweiser broke her arm a few years ago, Vodka Cran and White Russian brought her bags of ice and helped out around the house. “When we’re down and out, we’re there for each other,” says Vodka Cran.
Make a splash
Does Charlottesville have a true “dive bar”?
Charlottesville, we love you, but you’re almost too damn square to have a real honest-to-goodness dive bar. Almost.
Sure, there are a couple places on the mall, south of downtown, out 29, maybe even on Pantops that get a bit seedy and rough around the edges late night. But we’ve only got one true dive. And it’s Durty Nelly’s. Period.
“I have no problem being called a dive bar,” says Nelly’s co-owner Toby Breeden. “We’re a restaurant, which is our mainstay. We’re just old.”
What makes a dive a dive? Kirby Hutto, who manages Sprint Pavilion and ran the Cotton Exchange on West Main before the boozin’ age went from 18 to 21, says it boils down to four things: local ownership, how long it’s been around, no bright lights or polished surfaces and a mixed clientele—blue collar folks, townies and gownies.
“In a true dive bar, hipsters might not feel comfortable,” Hutto says. “It’s a place where you go in there and wind up having unexpected, tremendous conversations about who knows what. You have to have a certain adventurous spirit to walk in and feel comfortable.”
What sets Nelly’s apart? Breeden says it’s that they’ve been doing things the same way for nearly 40 years—other than a shift in ownership from the originals to him and Gary Hagar, previously the general manager. Live music, great food next door and a welcoming atmosphere.
Oh, and one more thing: no liquor.
“We’re not interested in all the rigmarole that goes along with serving whiskey,” Breeden says. “People come in and drink four or five beers and that’s it. People don’t act right when they drink whiskey.” Fact.
Swing out, Louise
Of the more than 120 patios on which to sip your favorite cocktails, the one that really blows our skirt up (literally!) is at Shebeen Pub & Braai. Grab a seat at the bar on the covered patio and hang on to your hat—surprise! It’s a swing!