The waters are getting rocky here in the Charlottesville dining scene, and it’s not just the little fish that are getting swept out with the tide these days. Two big whoppers expired in the span of one week: Coran Capshaw’s Starr Hill announced its closure on Thursday, June 28, and Patricia Kluge’s Fuel Co. closed its doors on Saturday, June 30. And Restaurantarama soon learned we were not alone in being taken completely off guard, at least with respect to the latter. It turns out even Charlottesville’s Mayor David Brown himself was caught unawares by Fuel Co.’s sudden death. When Brown showed up for dinner that Saturday night along with a contingent of visitors from Charlottesville’s Italian sister city, Poggio a Caiano, the group was surprised by the very unsisterly greeting of Fuel’s locked doors. The mayor had made reservations of course—the Italians were traveling all the way across the Atlantic for dinner after all. But even our fearless leader was denied advance warning of the closure. No worries, though. The folks at Bohème came to the rescue, moved around a few tables in the middle of their dinner service and quickly made room for the Italians who happily blew through a few bottles of wine and three or four courses starting with a succulent duck confit appetizer, says Bohème owner Tom Fussell.
Someone wants to sell Basil according to an online ad, but owner Raif Antar says it’s not him.
With a disastrous international incident narrowly avoided, however, Restaurantarama began to wonder: Shouldn’t we have seen this storm coming?
In the case of Fuel, it turns out the writing was definitely on the wall long before the paper went up on the windows. In the four short years of its existence, the gas station/c-store/wine bar and bistro gobbled up and spat out six different chefs and five different general managers. We caught up with one such former Fuel alumnus, Ken Wooten, one of the owners of Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar, for some scoop. Wooten was general manger No. 2 and the one with the longest tenure: two years. Before managing Fuel, he was manager of the Kluge Estate Farm Shop and, before that, he was Patricia Kluge’s butler (yep, apparently butlers exist outside “Benson” reruns). As for the abrupt closure, Wooten says, “I wasn’t surprised it went down that way.” Wooten, who says he was fired by Patricia Kluge, says the place was “a vanity project,” and was “hemorrhaging about $100,000 a month” when he came on board. The Kluge Estate’s PR representative, Theresa Bertrand from Deussen Global Communications in New York, said the organization had no comment to that and gave us this prepared statement: “After three years of operation, Fuel Co. will close its doors on Monday, July 2. Although we love the concept and enjoyed serving the Charlottesville community with the restaurant, the dramatic growth of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard and Vineyard Estates requires us to give those businesses more of our time and attention. We are happy to announce that Fuel Co. will continue to provide catering services and a venue, and we sincerely thank our customers for their patronage and loyalty.”
As to Wooten’s claims of the place being a bleeder, he blames it on highly compensated “consultant chefs” from New York, who he says were spending only about three days a week on the premises at the beginning, expensive ingredients that spoiled before they could be used and a facility that just couldn’t fill the seats, what with the gas pumps taking up all the room for parking.
For sale or not for sale?
From now on, we at Restaurantarama will be keeping our ears open and our eyes peeled for signs of impending doom. For curiosity’s sake, though, we conducted an online search of restaurants for sale in the city and discovered a listing for Basil, a Mediterranean bistro “in the heart of the University of Virginia.” But when we called Basil owner Raif Antar for information, he very curtly told us, “The restaurant is not for sale.” Hmmm. How then to explain the listing for a Mediterranean bistro, called Basil, on the Corner, next to Catwalk Clothing? Could there be another Basil Mediterranean bistro on another Corner next to another Catwalk Clothing? Perhaps in Poggio a Caiano, Italy? With some pressing, Antar did say, “Everything’s for sale for a price,” but insisted Basil is not.
As always, fair diners, we’ll keep you posted on these and other developments, but for now, buckle up—we think we’re in for a bumpy ride.