Merope Pavlides and her husband Peter Emch didn’t come to Charlottesville on the best of terms. Their son was ill and being treated at the UVA Medical Center. Still, the couple was taken by the city’s “vibe and wonderful people” and uprooted from Baltimore to make Central Virginia their home.
Pavlides, a special needs educator and administrator who had worked in restaurants and catering years ago, decided Charlottesville would be the perfect place to get back into the food service business. Seven weeks ago, she and her husband launched Threepenny Café in the former Zinc space on West Main. Their aim is to offer thoughtfully sourced, high-end, eclectic food at affordable prices. And while the opening weeks have brought challenges to the first time restaurateurs, Pavlides said the restaurant is “getting better every day.”
“The big goal is to be consistent. That takes a lot of practice on the part of the chefs and making sure all of our recipes are specific and everyone is following them to a T,” Pavlides said. “As we’ve tweaked our menu, sometimes that’s harder. As the menu is solidified, I’m hoping we will achieve that kind of consistency on a regular basis.”
Any lack of consistency so far is not for lack of effort on the part of Pavlides, her husband, or their classically trained chef Eric Nittolo. When I told Pavlides about a mistake the kitchen and wait staff made while I was in for dinner last week—our waitress brought us the caramelized fig salad, presented it to the table, and only then told us the kitchen was out of figs and had substituted cherries—she said that was exactly the type of guidance the restaurant’s looking for to improve.
If history is any indication, Threepenny is in for a challenge to succeed in the space vacated by Zinc, a widely acclaimed restaurant run by chef Vu Nguyen. While the circumstances surrounding the Zinc closing remain hazy (Nguyen also shuttered his nearby Vietnamese street food spot Moto Pho Co. several months later), Pavlides said she and her Wall Street-trained husband did their due diligence before moving in.
“I can’t speak to why he decided to leave,” Pavlides said. “But the reasons he decided to move on did not give us pause. Our concept is a different concept.”
It’s not necessarily a unique one, but it’s interesting on its face. “Global cuisine” at reasonable prices, according to Nittolo, means small plates with European influences, soups and salads, cheeses from seven countries, classic entrées, and gourmet pizzas like the “French,” featuring foie gras, duck confit, dried cherries, le delice cheese, pistachios, and mushrooms. Nittolo said the strategy for keeping costs down is not to cut corners on product quality but to serve smaller portions.
“Originally the concept was global peasant food, and I thought it would be a lot of fun,” Nittolo said. “I come from a high-end background, and I’ve been able to take fine dining concepts and meld them into $19-and-under dishes.”
Some of those dishes need work—the pizzas can be on the greasy side, and the carne asada could use a remodel for aesthetic reasons—but Threepenny is keeping an open ear to diners’ likes and dislikes. The restaurant is rolling out a new dinner menu this week that Nittolo said will be even more focused on “responsible sourcing,” while adhering to the under-$19 maxim and introducing more dishes for those with dietary restrictions.
“You can always improve,” Nittolo said. “One of the things we are going to do is focus on the health advantages of the food.”
The dinner menu isn’t the only thing Threepenny is focused on, according to Pavlides. It’s also offering brunch service, hosting live music events, and planning to bring in local artists’ work to adorn the walls. It’s all in an effort to be a part of the community in addition to running a business, according to Pavlides.
Threepenny will hold its first charity event, a fundraiser for HIV/AIDS vaccine nonprofit Charity Treks, on Wednesday, June 4. Pavlides said the cause is one that she and her husband feel particularly strong about.
“We are not simply here to create a restaurant that is an island unto itself,” she said. “We want to be involved, and we have from the start looked for opportunities and partnerships to do that. That will continue to be an important part of what we want to do with this restaurant.”
Pavlides and her husband only hope diners feel the way they did when they first learned the former Zinc location was opening up.
“The place is fun and funky and allows for a great flow of customers around the restaurant,” she said. “We fell in love with Charlottesville and this space.”