I have a confession of sorts. I am not wild about steakhouses.
As a food writer, it helps to have a versatile palate, and I am fortunate that I have yet to encounter an ingredient I do not like. But, I must admit that I may not fully appreciate the appeal of steakhouses. Steakhouses, it seems, can be as much about the experience as about the food, and it is an experience that others relish more than I do. When I have a hankering for steak, rather than spending money at a restaurant, I’ll usually grill a good cut from a trusted butcher, and splurge on a bottle of red instead.
This may be why it took so long for me to accept a close friend’s invitation to his regular guys’ night at one of Charlottesville’s most beloved steakhouses, The Aberdeen Barn. When I finally did, I told him that if we were going to do “guys’ night” we’d better do it right.
So I called on Mike London. Who has a stronger claim to his man card than a former city cop turned college football coach? When I invited Coach London, I was thrilled to learn that he is a big fan of The Aberdeen Barn. His teenage son Korben loves it, too, and so they both joined us for what turned out to be a guys’ night to remember.
The Barn, as it’s known to regulars like London, was founded in 1965 by George Spathos, a Greek immigrant who modeled the restaurant after big-time steakhouses he had admired in New York City. When he died in 1986, his daughter Angela and son Terry took over, and have been in charge ever since.
While I was aware that a special relationship exists between The Barn and the University of Virginia, I did not realize its depth until my meal there with Coach London.
“It’s the walls,” he said, pointing to the Cavalier sports photographs and memorabilia that cover the place. Meanwhile, the Virginia logo adorns waiters’ tuxedo vests. And, almost everyone in the place, from server to customer, greets London when he arrives. “Just walk in and the friendly faces and greetings make one feel special,” said London.
London has been to The Barn dozens of times, perhaps most often for recruiting visits.
“It has been a time-honored tradition of taking recruits and their parents to The Barn to top off the evening,” London said, noting that it works out well because it’s invariably always full of Virginia fans. “The patrons sell the school more than we do.”
London’s experiences as a police officer, football player, and coach made for fascinating guy talk. But his stories about fatherhood were the most touching and entertaining of all—like the night the ever-protective father dragged Korben out of bed and bribed him to accompany London’s daughter to the movies, so she wouldn’t be alone with her date. Korben held out until London doubled his initial offer.
When we finally got down to eating, London and I both started with his favorite appetizer: a classic, unfussy rendition of oysters Rockefeller. For an entrée, I followed my friend’s lead and ordered his favorite, the house specialty, roast prime rib au jus, extra thick cut. While all of the steak at The Barn is certified Angus beef, the prime rib is the most tender, thanks to a slow, overnight roast. Co-owner Angela Spathos calls it the best thing on the menu.
“It literally melts in your mouth,” she said, also naming the clams casino and homemade crabcakes among her favorites.
Coach London, meanwhile, opted for his standard order: broiled salmon filet, with a touch of dill butter, and a side of broccoli. As much as he loves steak, he explained, he visits The Barn so often that he eventually needed to adopt a healthier go-to order. The salmon, he said, is always cooked perfectly.
The University’s relationship with The Barn is so entrenched that no one seems to know how it started.
“I just always remember UVA as an integral part of our family and business,” said Spathos. It’s particularly strong on game days, she has observed, when athletes visit for pre-game meals and fans gather to talk about their Cavaliers.
“We live Virginia sports as a family and as a restaurant,” she said.
The Aberdeen Barn turns 50 next year, and some loyal cooks, staff, and customers have been with the restaurant nearly all five decades. Why? Well, like a lot of other steakhouses, it is the experience that makes The Barn special—so special, in fact, that it would not be unfair to call it a Charlottesville legend. And its relationship with the University of Virginia is a big reason why. As Coach London put it: “a great atmosphere and good food to be enjoyed by good company.” Sounds like all you need for a great guys’ night. And it was.