Gibson’s Grocery owner Chris Gibson reckons the hot dog is still the number two snack food in America. That may not always be apparent around these parts, but the frankfurter’s presence throughout the rest of America is undeniable. From the take-out windows and lunch counters of Chicago, to the ubiquitous hot dog carts of New York City, from every ballpark to the corner hot dog shacks of Los Angeles and the corner-lot Coney Island diners across the Motor City, the hot dog appears to be just as popular as the hamburger in most places.
Around here, however, the wiener has been a tad more elusive. The big yellow Last Call Dogs truck, once a regular around UVA and the Pavilion, hasn’t Tweeted since last July and its website is gone. The truck was spotted along West Main with a “For Sale” sign a while back. The Downtown Hot Dog Company, once unfortuitously situated in York Place, was unable to overcome the stealthy profile of its location.
There are reliable dogs available from carts on the Mall, but they are only slightly more likely to consistently show up at a prescribed location than an ambitious street musician. But enough of what was, what ain’t, and what will never be. Here’s what is.
Mel’s Diner on West Main Street does so very many things solidly that it’s no surprise its hot dog is right up there. Grilled over open flame, served in a lightly toasted roll, with jalapeño slices available, Mel’s is a righteous dog.
Everyday Shop and Cafe on Rolkin Road, up Pantops way, is a woefully underappreciated sweet spot. There’s an ABC on/off, decent coffee, draft beer to go, bottle beer to stay, a broad range of pastries, a solid grill menu, plus salads. The breakfast sandwiches are as good as any in town. The kitchen folks are great and will do your dog any way you want. On the grill, the griddle, split, or intact. There’s the all-too-rare jalapeño slices too. Don’t let them over toast your bun though. Great picture windows give it a travel plaza feel, but a good one.
Beer Run serves a very fine frank as well. It’s the second best one I could find. It’s an uncured, all-natural Applegate link in a pretzel bun. It has that crispy, crunchy flat-top griddle-cooked feel. With sauerkraut and a good mustard, the roll is so hearty it’s like a gourmet pretzel with a great hot dog bonus. The hefty bun, however, is a bit of a hot dog flavor crusher. But, at $4, it is a very solid wiener just the same.
The top dog on the scene is, hands down, at Gibson’s (Avon and Hinton in Belmont). The owner’s dad, Franklin Delano Gibson, operated the store from 1977 to 1999. The late, elder Gibson, a Charlottesville native, was the definition of “pillar of the community,” with a reputation for bridging racial divides in the neighborhood. The road from the bottom of Belmont Bridge to Monticello Avenue is named in honor of the senior Gibson. Chris grew up working in his dad’s store but then moved to Northern Virginia for a spell. He discovered the wonders of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs while traveling in the Northeast for his work in human resources. He returned home to Charlottesville, renovated the family store, and reopened Gibson’s Grocery in 2011. He serves great, inexpensive, cold cut sandwiches, has a good range of wines, an even better selection of beers and, most appetizingly, he sells Nathan’s Famous hot dogs. Nathan’s wieners are so doggone irresistible that some screwball ate 69 of them (buns too) in 10 minutes before a crowd of 40,000 at Coney Island on the Fourth of July.
The dogs at Gibson’s steam all day in a hot dog cooker that Chris bought from a vendor in New York. It’s a two-compartment contraption, where the dogs steam in a water and delectable “hot dog oil” vapor, he said, on one side, while potato rolls wait in a separate steam chamber. When he puts these two things together and tops them with mustard and a very high-end, locally made sauerkraut (no extra charge), this is an absolutely world class hot dog, as good as they make them anywhere. It’s $2 a dog and two for $3.50.
By Gibson’s estimation, the potato roll is as crucial to the combination as any other component. And he’s right. It’s substantial, but completely unobtrusive and complements the impossibly tasty frankfurter. Unlike any other way of serving a hot dog in a bun, the perfectly steamed potato roll melds with the sausage in the way only two things so made for each other can.