Blue Bird, which opened in the ’80s and moved to its current spot in the early ’90s, has suffered in the rapidly expanding world of Charlottesville dining. To be linked with words like “staple” and “reliable” can be a mixed blessing in a market where “fresh” and “novel” eateries are constantly popping up. (By our count, over 40 new restaurants opened around town last year. Plenty closed, too; on a side note, Elle’s Grill in Woodbrook Shopping Center has recently departed.) Without getting all theoretical, Restaurantarama is tempted to call Blue Bird an example of what academics label a “contested site.” In this case, the contestants would be old and new Charlottesville, duking it out with homey comfort foods on one side and trendy fusion fare on the other.
While Blue Bird isn’t exactly switching teams—they’re keeping their name and aren’t making any major renovations—they’re definitely trying to score a few major points. “The Downtown Mall in the last five years has blossomed,” says Pye. “Now it’s the destination area.” Belmont’s renaissance is another factor in declining business, says Pye.
The strategy, quite simply, calls for better food—cooked and served by a staff that’s been completely replaced since Pye and Hancher bought the place in January 2005. “The loyalty of the [former] staff was still toward the old owners,” says Pye. “We had a really tough time with any change of direction.” Lee, the new chef, brings culinary-school credentials; his resumé also includes a stint as the sous-chef under Timm Johnson at Scottsville’s Brick Café.
The new menu (and its companion, the new wine list) won’t debut until the first week of June, but we did get a few hints from Lee about what it might contain. Look for ceviche (maybe, says Lee, a Southwestern style with avocado rather than the more familiar Italian version), prime rib, a heftier steak selection, and a move toward couscous-based sides.
Significantly, both Pye and Lee were careful to say that the Bird’s signature crab cakes are not going anywhere. “They sell very, very well,” says Lee. Score one for the old.
In a similar bid for renewal, what used to be Sylvia’s on the Downtown Mall is now Vita Nova. The “pizza-slice-in-seconds” formula that Sylvia’s had long practiced (and which Christian’s Pizza has also
mastered, with notable success) is now
a “pizza and pasta” format. Owner Giovanni Sestito spent eight years running his Downtown shop as well as Sylvia’s on the Corner; in January, he sold the latter (it’s now Bambina’s) and has since devoted himself to revamping the former. What a change! A space that once resembled a high-school cafeteria is now done in warm browns and yellows, with a new floor, ceiling and counter. And there are salads and pastas in addition to the slices. Sestito reports a good response so far. “It makes people curious, you see,” he says of his updated, stylish sign. Score one for the new.
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