With new restaurants in the spotlight, it’s easy to forget about our culinary forerunners. And nothing about Tastings of Charlottesville, the space under the Market Street parking garage, lets on to the gem that lies within. After 22 years, it’s still, as owner Bill Curtis calls it, “Charlottesville’s best-kept secret,” and though it’s tempting to keep Tastings’ well-executed food, top-notch service, and peerless collection of wine undisclosed, that would no doubt send me to a wine-free afterlife.
Curtis, 66, came to Charlottesville from upstate New York in 1968 to attend graduate school for history, but first he needed a job. He worked at The Hunt Room at 500 Court Square (a hotel from 1926 to 1974), the casual outpost below the more formal Monticello Room. The Mall was not yet pedestrian and there were only four other places to eat Downtown.
In 1976, Curtis took over both restaurants, turning the downstairs into Court Square Tavern, a pub which still serves 140-plus beers alongside homemade, cozy classics like shepherd’s pie and roast beef chili. He continued to operate the Monticello Room, where his Wine Club of Charlottesville began in 1981, until he sold it to a law firm in 1988 and then bought Bixby’s sandwich shop on Market Street, reopening it as Tastings in 1990. Debbie Weisser was among his first employees, and she’s still there today.
To say that Curtis was ahead of his time would be an understatement. His cooking style is rooted in tradition (he’s still using some of his “Ma’s” recipes and, with the help of his sous chef Mike Berry, makes everything from scratch, down to the demi-glace), but he has a modern sensibility, going local as often as he can. The night we dined, Curtis had some Mangalitsa pork from Best Of What’s Around, and the historian-turned-chef was just as excited to share the wooly pigs’ origins as fare for Austrian Emperors as he was its sweet, succulent fat. When he begins retrieving facts from his categorical memory of 1,500 bottles of wine (all of which he tries before he buys), you realize that his knowledge is as much a well-kept secret as his crabmeat casserole.
A wine lover’s nirvana, Tastings offers 120 wines by half glass, glass, or flight (which Curtis announces each week through a newsletter that’s as entertaining as it is informative). You can taste all night, taking recommendations from Curtis or his right-hand man, Louie Cornay, or buy a bottle and pay just $7 above retail.
Dining with two other oenophiles meant geeking out over the dozen tastes Cornay brought us, several of which we tried blind. We sniffed, swirled, and sipped using abstruse descriptors to which we’d never subject a neophyte.
Not to say that novices wouldn’t be comfortable at Tastings. In fact, it’s probably the best place to go when you don’t know a whole lot. “We have no wine list,” said Curtis, who matches wines with patrons by asking 1) what they like, 2) what they’re looking to spend, and 3) what they’re having for dinner. One regular who’s been coming since 1992 for lobster bisque, steak, and salad told Curtis early on that he likes wine that tastes like stale Cherry Coke. “We know our folks’ foibles and we cater to them,” said Curtis.
After classic appetizers like chicken liver pâté with cornichon relish and a salad of golden beets, lettuce, dried fig chèvre, and balsamic cippolini, it was time for the main event—that pig fit for an emperor. Curtis served medallions over a brunoise of carrots, celery root, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips, which he calls his “root of all vegetables.” His Hungarian-style pork stew with sweet onions and smoky paprika joined spaetzle, peas, and chanterelles. There was more: a crock of cassoulet, duck with red currants, wood-grilled beef tenderloin with Ma’s potato gratin, warm apple strudel with a scoop of butter brickle, and a heavenly selection of cheeses. It was a feast, to be sure, but it’s just how Curtis, a genial and generous man despite his gruff exterior, does it.
With two restaurants open for lunch and dinner and only one day off (if you don’t count all his Sunday catering jobs), Curtis may be one of the hardest working people in town. His stamina comes from a cross of Ma’s stubbornness and a love for what he does: “You’ve got to want to gather something akin to a family around—a nexus of positive energy, of people who like your food and inspire you to do things better and better.”