The new owner of Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, Michael McCarthy, started his culinary career as a humble dishwasher at age 15 in Baltimore. Very Anthony Bourdain, no? Then McCarthy did the whole culinary school thing before cooking at high-pressure, upscale restaurants in San Francisco, Las Vegas and most recently at our own Ivy Inn. About two years ago, though, he got the itch to open his own place—but not one of the high-end variety where he’d been cutting his teeth. For his own place, he wanted something casual and niche, and he wanted to avoid busier markets close to town and north of Charlottesville. "It’s so saturated up there," he says. So after two long years of searching, McCarthy finally found his perfect place at the humble Dr. Ho’s, which he and his wife, Nancy, took over in July.
Now, if you read this column regularly, you know that restaurants in these parts change hands more often than, let’s say, C-VILLE cleans the staff refrigerator. In other words, McCarthy has had plenty of purchasing options over the last two years. Why the long wait? And why oh why did he settle on a shoebox of a pizza joint in the sleepy town of North Garden 11 miles south of Charlottesville on the lonely stretch of Route 29S heading toward Lynchburg? Well, if you’re asking yourself these questions, you’ve probably never been to Dr. Ho’s. The 9-year-old dining establishment next to the Crossroad Store is so much more than the only pizza shop (make that the only restaurant) for several miles. For the locals, it’s an institution.
Michael McCarthy’s dream of owning a restaurant was no longer pie in the sky when he bought Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie in North Garden.
McCarthy says many residents and area laborers frequent the restaurant’s tiny bar, with its unexpectedly comfy leather seats that allow for peering right into the kitchen, about five or six nights a week. (By the way, there’s no head-down pizzamaking at this intimately appointed place; anyone in the kitchen better be good with the customer chit-chat, as "ponying up to the bar" practically means ponying up to the pizza oven.) Also, area hikers have made Dr. Ho’s their fuel stop on the way to and from adventures at Crabtree Falls, and just plain ol’ hungry pizza lovers from Faber to Scottsville to Esmont have made Dr. Ho’s their chosen pie for take-out or for dining in at the cozy leather booths that sit under kitschy conversation-starting artwork, from vintage Grateful Dead posters to the white paper plates that the under 12 set decorates with crayons while waiting for their grub. Dr. Ho’s is one of those down-home dining dens that Tony Bourdain himself would just love.
And when McCarthy says the business is "totally locally driven," he’s talking not just about his customers but also about his vendors. McCarthy purchases most of his ingredients—eggs, whole wheat flour, sausage—from nearby farms such as Double H in Nelson County, and he also incorporates produce from the gardens of local folks who bring him their surplus fare, from tomatoes (oh, I think we can find something to do with those) to watermelon (uh, thank goodness for culinary school skills).
McCarthy, smartly, has left most of Dr. Ho’s recipe for success intact—he kept all the old staff and has maintained the specialty pizza menu, including the popular and classic Humble Pie (sweet peppers, Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, provolone and cheddar), the progressive Buddha (tofu, no cheese) and the postmodern Lil’ Mermaid (shrimp, pesto, oven-roasted tomatoes, feta). His additions have been subtle but key—more microbrews and imported beers and a diverse list of appetizers to appease patrons who must wait more than 20 minutes for the properly hand-tossed pie.
So if you call yourself an eat local-ite and you’re feeling humble and hungry, you really should put your money and your mouth where, er, your mouth is and stop in for the modest munchies at Dr. Ho’s—new captain, same tasty ship.
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