Big tuna: Cavalier Diner takes on greasy spoon classics

The crispy, gooey tuna melt has become a regular favorite at the Cavalier Diner. Photo: Martyn Kyle/Pernmoot Photography The crispy, gooey tuna melt has become a regular favorite at the Cavalier Diner. Photo: Martyn Kyle/Pernmoot Photography

I was once talking to my boss from across his cubicle when he stopped me mid-sentence and asked, “What’s that smell?” Of all the people you don’t want to hear this from, your boss is probably behind only someone you’d like to bed. Maybe it’s not me, I hoped. But after a quick self-inventory, I had to face the truth. It was the Jimmy John’s tuna sub I’d eaten for lunch.

These are the confessions of a tuna-holic.

My mom is partly to blame—she got me hooked on the stuff at a young age. But I alone allowed my addiction to take a nasty turn while teaching English in Japan. In the face of some funky breakfast options, I turned to tuna. It’s true. I was reaching for the ol’ tinned fish before I even got to work in the morning. Finally, I hit rock bottom. Back stateside, my morning cravings came back. I had to satisfy them. Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven indeed. But when my wife confronted me about a fishy cellophane sandwich wrapper on the floorboard of my car, I knew I had to get ahold of myself or give up tuna forever.

As I watched Aristea Vlavianos, owner of Cavalier Diner on Emmet Street, prepare one of the breakfast-focused joint’s amazing tuna melts for me last week, I considered myself fortunate to be in control of my problem. It was only 11am, but I can proudly say I hadn’t hit the crack of the sea before that hour in two years, one month, and 12 days. (Disclaimer: This may or may not be a made up length of time.) I felt confident I could enjoy the local dive’s take on my vice without relapsing.

I had discovered the greatness of the Cav’s melt several weeks earlier, when at a normal lunch hour I decided to pit two diner staples against one another. It was a heavyweight bout for the heavy set: the melt, a one-time special Vlavianos made a full-time menu option due to its popularity, versus the reuben, a sandwich practically synonymous with diners.

“We sell a boatload of reubens,” Vlavianos said.

As a recovering tuna-holic, I knew it would be difficult to remain unbiased, and while I did all I could, it was clear to me almost before I’d tasted the two sandwiches which one would come out on top. When Debra Frazier (aka Lovie) dropped the sandwiches on my table with an old fashioned, “Here you are, love,” my eyes were immediately drawn to the golden brown exterior and oozing interior of the tuna. The toast on the bread (from Ivy-based Carter Specialty Breads, it turns out) was enough to make the home cook want to weep. It had that perfectly golden brown hue you can only get from grilling a quality slice of rye brushed with melted margarine on a well-seasoned 400-
degree flat top. You can feel the texture with your eyes before you even pick up the sandwich, and all you want to do is crunch away.

Once I was elbows deep in the mayo-laden tuna salad and melted American cheese, I realized the Cav had two more tricks up its sleeve that set its tuna melt apart. One, the salad is made with a zippy sweet relish that pops against the salty fish when you get a bite with just the right quantity. Too much would likely be unpleasant, so it has to be distributed carefully.

Two, there are fricking grilled onions. On a tuna melt. Mind blowing. The slightly browned strands seemed to wrap around the other ingredients in the sandwich and pull everything together. They’re not crisp. They’re not caramelized. They’re cooked to just tender. They’re perfect.

By contrast, the Cav’s reuben was a little run-of-the-mill for my taste. The corned beef was on the salty side, and the sandwich lacked enough dressing to save it from coming off dry. These days, with many grocers and restaurants taking on a DIY ethos, I hunt down the best house-made corned beef I can find and go from there when I want a righteous reuben.

But oh the Cav tuna. How can anyone resist that contrast of a crisp outside and gooey inside? Vlavianos said it’s not just tuna addicts who keep coming back for the sandwich.

“Since we put it on the menu permanently, we sell more tuna melts than patty melts,” she said.

Adding the addictive sandwich to the permanent menu isn’t the only change Vlavianos has made since taking over the restaurant from her parents four years ago. (They purchased it and renamed it the Cavalier Diner the year before that.) The former history teacher, who spent seven years living in Greece after college, has also added Greek dishes and a few Italian staples, a nod to her husband’s home country. Vlavianos said she’s committed to continuing her parents’ legacy of owning restaurants in Charlottesville.

“I grew up in it,” she said. “When I was little, the majority of the restaurants in Charlottesville were owned by Greeks. Not so much any more. But there are a few of us that still like it.”

If she can just keep all the tuna addicts from loitering around the parking lot, she’ll be set.