New Fellini’s owner keeps tradition alive

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Chris (pictured) and Sarah Humphrey bought Fellini’s #9 from longtime owner Jacie Dunkel two months ago. The couple says they’ll keep beloved menu staples, while adding special dishes, a new cocktail list and more. Photo by Eze Amos Chris (pictured) and Sarah Humphrey bought Fellini’s #9 from longtime owner Jacie Dunkel two months ago. The couple says they’ll keep beloved menu staples, while adding special dishes, a new cocktail list and more. Photo by Eze Amos

As a kid, Chris Humphrey spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s home on Belmont Avenue. The small house was the hub for the entire family—there was never fewer than 15 people there at a time, Humphrey remembers—and his grandmother was always cooking for everyone: beef stew, onion gravy, mac ’n’ cheese.

Humphrey, who had severe asthma and couldn’t play football in the yard with his cousins, passed much of that time at his grandmother’s side, in the kitchen, watching cooking shows on PBS and picking vegetables from the garden.

Humphrey’s grandmother would pickle and can what she didn’t use right away and stow the jars of bread-and-butter pickles and other delights in the hallway closet.

After cooking in restaurants all over town, including Bizou, Bang!, Maya and the now-shuttered Higher Grounds, Metropolitan and Station, and serving as head chef at Rapture for five and a half years, Humphrey has his own restaurant. He and his wife, Sarah, have bought Fellini’s #9 from longtime owner Jacie Dunkle.

“There’s something about it that’s always drawn me to it,” Humphrey says of Fellini’s. “I like the dining room, and I like what Jacie has done [with it]. She’s built a Charlottesville icon of sorts.”

Dunkle, who owned and ran Fellini’s for years before selling it to Justin Butler and Chad and Melissa Ragland in June 2015, bought the restaurant back in August 2016 with the intention of selling it again later—Dunkle also owns Tin Whistle and The Salad Maker, and says she didn’t want to run three restaurants. Humphrey had cooked at Fellini’s in the past, and Dunkle asked him to come back on board last August. When the Humphreys expressed interest in buying the place, Dunkle says she was “thrilled.”

“I knew [Chris] had the experience to know what he was up against, and Sarah, too, has been in the industry for a long time and [knows] about [the] front of the house,” Dunkle says. “I know they will keep Fellini’s on its successful track and I want to make sure it works for them, and for the community. Fellini’s has a long tradition in Charlottesville and it needs to continue.”

“Jacie wanted to hand it over to someone who cared about it, and who would keep it alive for her. Hopefully we can pull it off,” says Humphrey, who promises that most Fellini’s menu staples—like the bolognese, spaghetti and calamari dishes—will remain. Other dishes will change frequently, based on what’s available from local farms and from Seafood @ West Main. There’s a new cocktail list, and he’s working with a few wine distributors on regular wine dinners. He’s also toying with the idea of having a pop-up speakeasy in the upstairs space that held a speakeasy a few years ago. “It’s a cool room up there,” Humphrey says of the secretive spot that, much like his grandmother’s hallway closet, might hold a plethora of delights. “I think that could be fun.”

Robert Edward Johnson Sr. Photo by Elli Williams

Kitchen king

As reported in the obituary pages of The Daily Progress, longtime Aberdeen Barn chef Robert Edward Johnson Sr. died on Tuesday, October 3, after a long illness. He was 80 years old. In the early 1960s, Johnson was chef at the Gaslight on West Main Street, and in 1965 he began cooking what many regarded to be the best steaks in the Charlottesville area at the Aberdeen Barn. Johnson served as chef at the Aberdeen Barn for 50 years, until illness kept him out of the kitchen and forced him into retirement in 2015—at that point, he’d been the restaurant’s only chef.

Robert Edward Johnson Sr. served as Aberdeen Barn’s chef for 50 years before retiring in 2015.

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