The scene of a movie, the site of a mooning, an old inn reassembled from parts: Here are six local restaurants that have set the bar when it comes to keeping things interesting (and standing the test of time).—Laura Ingles, Dan Testa, Lynn Thorne and Caite White
Timberlake’s (322 E. Main St., Downtown Mall)
Some things never change. When it comes to Timberlake’s, the beloved Downtown Mall drug store with a lunch counter in the back past the pharmacy counter, that’s a good thing. Though it’s been remodeled since it opened in the late 19th century, the back room still looks much like it did in the 1960s: cherry red bar stools, a checkered tile floor and a big fireplace that provides a warm lunch spot in the winter.
Framed photos of the shop (and friends of the shop) over the years help paint a picture of its history, and put diners in the mood for an egg cream. Go ahead and treat yourself to a Coke float with a giant scoop of chocolate ice cream.—L.I.
The Virginian (1521 University Ave.)
The Virginian is to Charlottesville dining what the Rotunda is to academia here: the foundation for much of what flourishes today. Opened in 1923, the “V” persevered through Prohibition in the 1930s and louche affairs downstairs in the 1970s.
UVA students and alumni still fill it seven days a week. One of them, Andy McClure, bought the restaurant in 2001. He cites the Stumble Down Mac N’ Cheese, named for the former downstairs pool hall, as an enduring favorite. “It’s the perfect blend of crunchy and creamy, and it can cure what ails ya,” he says.
Among McClure’s favorite trivia is that the V served as a backdrop for scenes in the 1991 John Cusack and James Spader drama True Colors. McClure calls those scenes, “a perfect representation of what people love about the place. It’s where friends meet, and what’s better than that?”—D.T.
Michie Tavern (683 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy.)
When Corporal William Michie returned home to Virginia following his father’s passing in the late 1700s, he was bequeathed a tract of land. He built a home, then, in 1784, he received a license to operate an inn. It remained a hub of local activity—dances, church services and performances—until 1910, when the tavern was sold at a state auction to a family that kept it as a private residence for nearly the next two decades.
In 1927, local businesswoman Josephine Henderson bought the property to display her large collection of antiques. But its location on Buck Mountain was all but inaccessible. To capitalize on booming tourism, Henderson had it disassembled and moved 17 miles to where it stands today, at the base of Carter Mountain, a half-mile from Monticello. Currently a restaurant and museum, Michie Tavern is the largest grouping of reassembled buildings in Albemarle County—and the only place in town to get fried chicken delivered to your table by servers in period dress.—C.W.
Riverside Lunch (1429 Hazel St.)
Jak-N-Jil (1404 E. High St.)
You’d have to be an octogenarian to remember when Jak-N-Jil started slinging dogs on High Street. Established in the 1940s by the Vam Vakaris family, the greasy spoon is now operated by its third owner, John Vam Vakaris, and specializes in foot-long hot dogs with homemade chili. Burgers, fries, milkshakes and hangover-annihilating breakfast grub round out the menu.
Jak-N-Jil makes itself at home among the other blue collar spots on High Street, within a stone’s throw of Riverside Lunch, sandwich spot Tubby’s, Fabio’s New York Pizza and taco shop extraordinaire La Michoacana. And while it doesn’t get talked about as much as some of the others, its fans are no less ravenous.
“It’s one of those rare places where the food still tastes exactly like it did when I was a kid,” says Charlottesville transplant Beth Angell on Facebook. “And that’s a good thing!”—S.G.
Korner Restaurant (415 Ninth St. SW)
The Nook (415 E. Main St. NE, Downtown Mall)
Foods of All Nations (2121 Ivy Rd.)
Wayside Chicken (2203 Jefferson Park Ave.)
The Colleen Drive-In (4105 Thomas Nelson Hwy., Arrington)
Aberdeen Barn (2018 Holiday Dr.)
George Spathos opened the Aberdeen Barn in 1965 after falling in love with the storied “big time” steakhouses of New York City. According to daughter Angela Spathos, who now runs the place with her brother, Terry, George made his way to Charlottesville and met their mother, Maria, whose father co-owned a pool hall and bar on the Downtown Mall. He helped George start “the Barn.”
“The restaurant business is definitely in our genes,” Angela Spathos says. “We have gotten to know many families over the years and many have become like family to us.”
More than 50 years later, generations still gather in the warm, wood-paneled Aberdeen Barn for a classic steakhouse experience, including the renowned, slow-roasted prime rib. On a recent Friday night, diners in the bar gathered around basketball on flatscreens, while at the other end of the room, an older couple swayed to the jazz piano playing.—D.T.
The White Spot (1407 University Ave.)
Spudnuts (309 Avon St.)
How do you make a donut that delights a town for nearly 50 years? Make “friendliness part of the recipe,” according to Spudnuts founder Richard Wingfield. Wingfield passed away in 2005 but his daughter Lori and her husband, Mike Fitzgerald, continue the tradition today with same delicious results.
Fitzgerald says they serve “the best people in the world,” who comprise a diverse group from high school seniors to senior citizens (some of who have been “meeting there every day for 40 years to discuss life and politics”). Customers nosh on the best-selling glazed and the blueberry, along with a few newer additions.
“It’s a hard business with long hours” (he comes in between 12:30 and 1am each day) but “it’s almost like you put a smile on their face and that makes it worth it.”—L.T.
Lord Hardwicke’s (1248 Emmet St. N)
Integral Yoga (923 Preston Ave.)
Littlejohns’ New York Delicatessen (1427 University Ave.)
When they say open 24/7, they mean it, which might be why Littlejohns’ has been around for 40 years. The Corner deli has literally been open every day since it opened, regardless of weather or holidays. In the case of snow, management has been known to arrange carpools with whoever has access to four-wheel drive, and put employees up in a nearby hotel so they can make it in to work.
As for the menu, owner Colleen Strong says it doesn’t change very often, but occasionally the team behind the counter will come up with a new combination, or someone will come in with suggestions. The most recent one came a few years ago, when members of the 21 Society at UVA showed up outside the restaurant with cloaks covering their faces and sampled several sandwiches until choosing the sub with ham, bacon, cheddar and blue cheeses, onion, lettuce and tomato as the society’s namesake.—L.I.
C&O Restaurant (515 E. Water St.)
Crozet Pizza (5752 Three Notch’d Rd., Crozet)
Bob Crum wasn’t trying to be trendy when he started making pizzas with fresh, local ingredients in 1977. He just wanted to make good pies. He never would have called the pies “bespoke”—or any other hipster nonsense—but that’s exactly what they were.
“We’ve gotten bigger, but I still remind the kitchen not to rush things,” says Crum’s daughter Colleen Alexander, who now runs both the original Crozet location and a newer spot on the Corner with her husband. “We’re making each pizza individually for the customer. We’re putting that special love and care in.”
That means sourcing their basil from a family friend, coming up with inventive topping combinations and sticking to the original dough recipe (developed by Alexander’s mom) and spice mixture (developed by Crum).
“We’ve grown because word got out. My dad never really advertised,” Alexander says. “It just became popular because of the product.”—S.G.
Fellini’s #9 (200 Market St.)
Miller’s (109 W. Main St., Downtown Mall)
Duner’s (4372 Ivy Rd.)
Bob Caldwell was a cook when Duner’s opened in 1983, serving what he described as a “diner-y” menu seven days a week. He bought the restaurant in 1988, presiding over its evolution into an Ivy fixture offering casual fine dining with seasonal ingredients. In that time he’s witnessed the renaissance of locally sourced ingredients.
“When we first opened we actually got local eggs, local chickens and local rabbits from local farmers back then,” Caldwell says. “It’s come back, which is great.” Among changing specials, menu mainstays include sweetbreads and crab cakes. “I have people calling me weeks ahead of time to see when softshell crabs show up,” he adds.
Historical highlights include Muhammad Ali signing tablecloths at Duner’s in the ’80s, dishwashers who robbed a bank and hid the cash in a storage room and the infamous “Duner’s mooning” incident following an argument between customers.—D.T.
Mel’s Cafe (719 W. Main St.)
While the West Main neighborhood surrounding Mel’s Cafe has changed dramatically over the more than three decades since owner and operator Melvin Walker opened, his approach has not: Southern comfort food served in a warm, casual atmosphere.
That attitude, with help from Walker’s wife, Tia, has made Mel’s Cafe a Charlottesville institution. “We treat people very friendly, make them feel at home. Especially my wife, she talks a lot,” Walker says. “People ain’t never been here before, she acts like she’s known them for years. That attracts a lot of people back to us.”
Born and raised in Vinegar Hill, Walker has been working in restaurants since age 11. He recalls cooking nights at The Virginian after school at age 13. That experience comes through in dishes that attract locals and tourists alike. “Most people come in holler about the fried chicken and the barbecue ribs and fresh made ground burgers,” he says.—D.T.
Chaps Ice Cream (223 E. Main St., Downtown Mall)
HotCakes (Barracks Road Shopping Center)
Sal’s Caffe Italia (221 E. Main St., Downtown Mall)
St. Maarten Cafe (1400 Wertland St.)
We took to Facebook to ask readers what restaurant they missed the most. Of over 100 responses, these are our favorites.—C.W.
“I grew up in the Gaslight, which was founded by my stepfather, John Tuck, and have a wealth of memories of the restaurant at all three of its locations—the original spot in the old Albemarle Hotel at 615 W. Main St.; its second location in Barracks Road Shopping Center, at the old fountain, where it became The Gaslight Fountain Restaurant (currently Five Guys); and its final location back on West Main next door to its original location (now an empty storefront but most recently The Horse & Hound). John was a very colorful character, and very well-known around town. By the way, the waiter in the photo is Norman Goins, who was also probably known to everyone in Charlottesville. The kitchen was very ably presided over by William Morse, who probably cooked more meals for me than my own mother. William cooked a New York strip to perfection, and made a mean London broil. He also prepared delicious lobster, which were shipped in fresh from Maine on a railways bus, from the live tank in the dining room.
I used to go down to the bus station with John to pick them up in their huge styrofoam box, and it was my job to unpack them and place them in the freezing cold saltwater tank (or throw them away if they hadn’t survived the trip). The Gaslight opened in 1961, and for quite some time was regarded as the only real restaurant in town. At the opening, John offered a free dinner to anyone who donated an interesting piece of décor, and that’s how the restaurant ended up with its amazing collection of diverse decorations, including a giant stuffed walrus head that surveyed the dining room while wearing an old silk top hat.
Other pieces that stick out in my memory are an oil painting of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that
used to scare the bejesus out of me when I was a child, and an electric kaleidoscope projector hanging from the ceiling that played a psychedelic color show across the dining room every night until the restaurant moved to Barracks Road in the mid-’70s. Pretty much every act that came to give a concert at UVA during the ’60s and every personality who came to speak at the university had dinner at the Gaslight, ranging from Bob Dylan to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I remember one of the old menus on which the entire back of the page was covered in the names of famous people who had dined at The Gaslight.”—C.B. Stevens, Keswick
“Espresso Corner in the location which became Orbitz, now Boylan Heights. I was a barista there from ’98-’99. Became addicted to iced mochas there, and spent countless hours when not working, studying and talking to all the regulars. A lot of grad school students studied there, and some even held their office hours there. We had a tab system on 3×5 cards where the regulars could pay their bill just once a month.”—Amanda Schwab Maglione, Charlottesville
“The Mousetrap on the Corner was unique because when you entered, you received a red ticket and all of your beverage and food orders would be written on it by the waitress. Then, when you were ready to go, you took that red card to the cashier to pay. You could not leave without turning in that card and paying. Many tried.”—Terry Gebs Burton, Crozet
“Loved the Bluebird when it started out in McIntire Plaza—even spotted Bill Murray in there once!”—Colleen Church, Charlottesville
“Well, the best restaurant to dance to live music at (other than the C&O) was the Mouse Trap in the ’70s. Many wonderful evenings, although illegal (who was checking?) because I was not yet 18. I recall being dazzled by Muddy Waters at the Mineshaft as a wee teen, but normally that hole-in-the-ground was way too crowded and smoky.”—Ginny Daugherty, Charlottesville
“Worked through UVA at Main Street Grill (now Roots Natural Kitchen), Northern Exposure (now El Jaripeo) and Mingles Karaoke Bar (now Lost Saint). Memories of busy nights in the kitchen and lots of late nights at the bar. Also can’t forget the cheese sticks from Chanellos Pizza!”—Kate Collier, Charlottesville
“Oh, I loved the Cotton Exchange. And I used to work at the Bluebird Cafe. So many stories. Circa 1990 a couple of gray-haired, martinis-for-lunch suits who were on their way out mistook owner Margaret Granger for a waitress and asked her, ‘Who runs this place?’ She smiled and said, ‘I am the owner.’ They were drunkenly flabbergasted. ‘You run this whole place all by your little self?’ As a naive graduate student, I had never seen such flagrant sexism right in my face before. I had also never seen Margaret so beet-red angry.”—Kristin Wenger, Charlottesville
“Eastern Standard met the challenge of opening on the Downtown Mall and included the original Escafé, where the same kitchen produced less expensive food of the same amazing quality. It had an LGBTQ openness with Mulroney’s, where you could hold hands with your sweetie without side eye from anybody!”—Roberta Williamson, Charlottesville