I have heard it said more than once: Charlottesville is not a brunch town. What? With Blue Moon Diner, Bodo’s, Brookville, Beer Run, Bizou, Bluegrass Grill & Bakery and Brazos Tacos, I don’t even need to leave the B’s to name great brunch spots in town. On the other hand, I do understand the perspective. There are unquestionably stronger brunch cultures in other cities, where it is considered essential to every Sunday, often occupying much of the day with food, drinks and revelry.
Here in Charlottesville, our brunches are usually hit-and-run. Fuel up and carry on with your day. To find out why that might be, I asked owners of two of the best, Scott Smith of Bodo’s and Laura Galgano of Blue Moon Diner, who both agree that Charlottesville’s brunch scene does not have as much all-day pull as other cities. That type of scene, says Galgano, requires a “culture of leisure,” which means “free time and free money.” Although there’s no shortage of wealth in Charlottesville, Smith speculates, “Maybe our time goes to the things we have a lot of: kids, outdoors and home life.” Galgano agrees. “There’s just so much to do in Charlottesville on the weekends,” she says.
But, if that’s true, what explains the success of the much-lamented legendary brunch that Mas Tapas once hosted? With hours from noon to 6pm, it encouraged guests to make brunch an all-day affair. And we all obliged, hunkering down with the Sunday paper, alternating between coffee and cocktails and maybe even breaking out the porron to pour wine into neighbors’ mouths. That interaction and “group drinking,” says Smith, was a key part of Mas’ brunch. “The brunch there felt like one big thing rather than many small ones,” he says.
Nearly a decade after Mas’ brunch ended, there’s a new candidate to revive the culture of brunch festivities. Tavern & Grocery was opened in January in the former location of West Main, A Virginia Restaurant by Andy McClure, owner of Citizen Burger Bar, The Virginian and The Biltmore. With exposed brick walls, a bright, airy feel and a bar centering the room, Tavern & Grocery’s setting is well-suited for a festive brunch scene. “The space is beautifully thought out,” says Galgano, “with nice, higher-end touches balanced with more of a country kitchen feel.”
But aesthetics are useless unless the food is any good. And our food, I’m happy to report, was excellent. That’s not surprising, I suppose, given that the kitchen boasts three young cooks from Clifton Inn, led by chef David Morgan. What is more surprising is the restraint of the kitchen. Too often, young chefs as talented as Morgan and his team over-complicate dishes or try to show off their talent with superfluous ingredients. At our brunch, though, every component of every dish was well-considered and integral to the whole. “Each dish took the basics and elevated them,” said Galgano. “The food was outstanding.”
My favorite, the steak fromage sandwich, stood out not because of any tricks, but for the care that went into each ingredient. Morgan dry-ages rib-eye for four weeks, and then cold-smokes it before searing thin slices and layering them with Brie, caramelized red onion and garlic aioli on a buttered hunk of Albemarle Baking Company baguette. “That is fantastic,” said Smith.
And, he enjoyed another dish even more: poached eggs, which the kitchen uses a circulator to cook to exactly 62 degrees. Wait, you said no tricks! In this case, the trick serves an important purpose, says Morgan: ensuring the egg’s consistency. With the eggs came grilled asparagus, spot-on beurre blanc and cubes of roasted potatoes. The eggs, Smith says, were “beautifully poached,” the beurre blanc “lovely and light” and the potatoes “fluffy and nicely crisped, but no more.”
Our final dish, a croque madame sandwich, again showed attention to detail. The kitchen first brined ham in a brown sugar solution before smoking it. The ham then joined melted Gruyère on pain de campagne, toasted in copious amounts of butter and topped with béchamel and a sunny-side up egg. “I love the fact that they cure and age all of their own meats,” says Galgano.
Beyond stellar food, Tavern & Grocery nailed the other key elements of a festive brunch scene: good drinks and conviviality. My French press of Shenandoah Joe coffee lasted the entire meal, and both of my cocktails were delicious. The Spritz combined brut rosé with Cocchi Rosa and Aperol, while the Red Bloody Mary benefited from vodka infused with just enough bacon to deepen the flavor without overpowering it.
And, as Galgano observed, the open space “lends itself to visiting between parties.” In fact, more than once during our meal, friends and local chefs stopped by our table to say hello. It almost started to feel like one big celebration.
Jan. 8, 2016: Tavern-style eatery to open in West Main spot
Other “At the Table” Columns:
April 29, 2016: Côte-Rôtie champions trying new things
April 2, 2016: First chef at Clifton Inn rates its newest
February 25, 2016: Blue Moon Diner dishes up food worthy of the best