As the coronavirus continues to keep people inside, local restaurant devotees have been on edge, fearing the worst for many establishments’ ability to survive the slowdown in traffic that has befallen all businesses.
One popular spot has some encouraging news: Rather than closing as planned, Brasserie Saison has cautiously reopened with a new general manager, and added an upscale carryout shop adjacent to the restaurant.
Stephen Kelly recently took over as GM after a decade at Manhattan’s globally acclaimed Eleven Madison Park (a chic establishment launched by Danny Meyer that received three Michelin stars, four stars from the New York Times, and is repeatedly listed as one of the top five restaurants in the world), where he worked his way up from kitchen server to dining room manager and then captain.
Kelly first fell in love with Charlottesville while on visits with his wife, who is a UVA grad. Brasserie Saison became a favorite destination for the couple, and the intimacy of the food community here was a big draw when deciding to make a move.
“We always knew that the time would come for us to leave New York City,” says Kelly. “I came to the realization that a restaurant’s greatest asset along with its team, is its place in the community. …At Eleven Madison Park I was part of a wonderful global community, but I wanted to move to a more intimate community like the one here.”
Like the rest of us, Kelly hadn’t planned for a pandemic. The surge of the virus threatened to thwart his goal while also confirming that he and his wife were making the right decision to uproot themselves.
“I started exploring moving to Charlottesville in early 2020, and COVID-19 stalled those efforts. It wasn’t until Virginia started to open its restaurants that I experienced a moment of serendipity,” he says. “I had emailed Hunter Smith out of the blue. It was shortly before that email that he decided to reopen Brasserie after publicly saying it was closing. It was the community’s reaction to that news that led Hunter to see how important to the community Brasserie was, and also reinforced my perception of the restaurant culture here. So, in so many ways, it was a no-brainer for the both of us.”
Kelly says his vision for the restaurant is a work in progress, due to the circumstances, and it’s hard to predict where we’ll be in the next 12 months, but opening was the first step. “We want to do this in the most responsible way possible so that the reopening of our restaurant is a sign of good things to come,” he says. “My vision for Brasserie Saison is to stay true to that name. While it literally translates to ‘brewery’ it is a name that indicates a casual neighborhood restaurant which can both be a place that is part of a local’s weekly routine, as well as a place for special occasions. Brasserie has such a strong reputation that changing this restaurant’s core values would be a huge mistake. I aim only to reinforce them.”
The restaurant reopened on July 20 with socially distanced dining, and seating inside and on the patio, and Kelly says so far it’s working out well. The staff is smaller, with Spencer Dunsmore, an opening team member and kitchen veteran who worked his way up the ranks, as chef de cuisine, and Wil Smith as bar manager.
“The cocktail program here has been a huge part of the identity of the restaurant up to this point, and [Wil] is the perfect person to continue that tradition in this post-COVID version of the restaurant,” Kelly says.
They’ve also launched Superette Saison next door, in the former Verdigris space, spearheaded by former Brasserie GM Reid Dougherty. It’s a “neighborhood convenience store” concept that features a curated selection of wine, beer, and food to go, and blends with the Saison brand.
“Over time we will be adding more to the Superette, as we find out how we can best serve Charlottesville,” Kelly says. “I would describe it as a different expression of the same Brasserie Saison identity.”