I don’t like kids’ menus. Beyond their uniform content, what troubles me most is the message they send to kids that there are two different types of food—one for adults to enjoy and another to keep you quiet in the meantime. As a food-lover and parent, I can’t see how this helps to cultivate a passion for food in children. Admittedly, in a pinch, I have sometimes resorted to chicken tender-as-babysitter. But, more often than not, when we eat out we skip the kids’ menu.
Some restaurants make this easier than others. Lately, when I ask my children where we should go for a family meal, they usually say Fry’s Spring Station. That’s music to my ears because since relaunching under new management in April, the Italian-American restaurant is much improved, and, unlike many kids’ favorites, appeals to adults, too.
The new team includes an impressive pair: culinary school classmates Ben Thompson and Tommy Lasley. After finishing top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America, Thompson worked at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry before opening the Nelson County butcher The Rock Barn. Lasley, a former chef at Orzo, was once named one of Charlottesville’s four rising-star chefs. After successfully overhauling Ivy Provisions, the two turned their efforts to Fry’s Spring, which, having opened in 2010, was due for a reboot.
“Every time I walk in, I am amazed,” says my daughter, Ryan, 8, who calls it “so cool” that Fry’s Spring Station was once a service station. Indeed, that was the use of the building for more than 70 years. The recent refurbishments, including updated wood floors and handsome tables of reclaimed wood, give the place a polished, airy feel without disturbing the original structure. The favorite remnant of my son, Chase, 7, is a glass garage door that forms one wall of the L-shaped bar and slides open to the patio, providing a view back into the restaurant from outdoor stools along the indoor bar. That’s where we usually sit.
On our most recent visit, though, we sat at one of the large community tables indoors because we invited my children’s friends, Anne and Edward Flick, also 8 and 7 respectively. With a menu as large as Fry’s Spring’s, some things are inevitably better than others, so the key is to find your favorites. With company, though, we decided to branch out from our standard orders. Chase, then, passed on his penne with tomato and basil, which he calls “the best in town.” Ryan resisted her charcuterie platter, showcasing The Rock Barn’s outstanding capicola and other cured meats. And I skipped my favorite appetizer: warm, just-pulled mozzarella as well as another go-to order, manciatta—a dressed salad served atop flatbread made from pizza dough with olive oil and herbs. It’s fun to tear off pieces of the bread and, like injera, use it to grab pieces of the salad.
A massive hearth oven is the centerpiece of the kitchen, which, under Lasley’s guidance, is manned by chef John Schaible, who worked with Lasley at Orzo and with Thomspon at The Rock Barn. Their menu is well-suited for sharing, with salads, sides and pastas all offered in small and family-size portions. At Ryan’s urging, we ordered a steak-topped Caesar salad of rough-chopped romaine with a spot-on, housemade dressing. We also added two pizzas, our first time trying the pizza in all of our visits, but certainly not our last. A hybrid of styles, it had the char and quality ingredients of Neapolitan and New Haven pizza, but the denser, satisfying texture of a neighborhood pizza joint. It struck me as the kind of pizza to enjoy at the bar with a beer. And I returned to do just that, pairing a Champion Fruitless IPA with Lasley’s favorite pizza, the Farmer John. Two sunny-side up eggs, prosciutto, sliced tomato, chives, cheese and arugula all rest on a house white sauce of ricotta and garlic confit pureed with salt and pepper.
But back to our dinner. With the Flicks’ father, I shared a calzone of smoked ham, Tillamook cheddar, pesto, spinach and onion. My favorite dish of the night, it captured the restaurant’s ethos—a warm, comforting, uncomplicated dish, elevated by attention to detail.
Drinks also appeal to all ages. My kids like to try the various flavors of all-natural Puck’s fountain sodas, but are happiest when returning to their favorite vanilla orange, which Ryan says tastes like a creamsicle. “I’m getting that next time,” says Anne, after trying Ryan’s. For big kids, there is a small, well-chosen list of affordable wines, plus a draught and bottle selection to satisfy any beer geek.
So, how did the Flicks like their first trip to Fry’s Spring Station? “Two thumbs up,” says Anne. “It’s fun and has yummy pizza!” says Edward. Sounds like a win to me. And, perhaps best of all, there was not a word about the kids’ menu.