Everything feels the same.
You walk across the City Market parking lot. You spy the old black South Street sign on the building across the way. You open the door to the somewhat dreary anteroom next to South Street Brewery. You open the next door, this one to your trusty old neighborhood brewpub.
There’s a merch table to your left. The growlers, T-shirts and assorted trinkets are brightly lit. The slick new red South Street logo is emblazoned everywhere. Running the length of the wall continuing out on your left is a row of sharp-lined booths under a gunmetal paint job and exposed beams. The place is open, airy—walls have been removed, floors have been raised and lowered and furniture has been pared down.
What’s happened to your trusty old neighborhood brewpub?
What’s happened is the work of the prodigal Smacks, Taylor and Mandi. The couple moved to Charlottesville from Chicago and worked together at the pub formerly known as South Street in the early 2000s, Mandi as hostess and Taylor as brewmaster, plying the trade he picked up at Chi Town’s renowned Goose Island Beer Company.
In 2007, the couple decided to open their own brewpub. The result was Blue Mountain Brewery, a marriage of solid craft beer and fun pub fare set on a perch above Route 151 with a nice view of the Blue Ridge. The place has been a runaway success. It’s won countless diner’s choice awards. It’s won Virginia and national beer awards. It’s packed from seat-to-seat and then some every weekend. And it’s expanded.
The Smacks launched Blue Mountain Barrel House in 2012. The new production facility and tasting room was intended to be a place for Taylor and his team to get creative, adding barrel-aged beers, sour beers and wild yeast beers to their portfolio. It also allowed Blue Mountain to expand overall production and take on some contract brewing.
Then another opportunity came along. South Street owners Fred Greenewalt and Jacque Landry approached the Smacks. Did they want to return to the city and revamp the restaurant that gave them their C’ville start? At the time, the couple didn’t. But a seed was planted.
“We had our hands in all sorts of stuff in Nelson County, and we didn’t have time,” Smack said. “But we looked at it really hard and came back to the table. I think they were a little burned out. We are excited to be working with the South Street brand.”
Some of the old school flavor of the South Street brand reasserts itself as you continue into the restaurant and bar. The large central fireplace still anchors the space, and the wall of windows across the façade remains. The bar has been reworked a bit, but familiar feelings are there as you sidle up to check the day’s beer list handwritten on a nearby blackboard.
Some of the old beers even remain: Satan’s Pony, a sturdy amber, J.P. Ale, the standby pale and Absolution, a malty throwback. But that’s where the nostalgia ends. The rest of the list is filled out by new ideas and trendy techniques from head brewer Mitch Hamilton and Taylor himself—the lager of the moment gets a nod in My Personal Helles, Bumper Crop is brimming with fresh, wet, local hops and Roux lightens up the growing red IPA category with a nitrogen charge. Then there’s the current star of the list, Anastasia’s Chocolate Fantasy, an unctuous Russian imperial stout that immediately joins the top tier of local offerings in the style.
The new beer list is, by and large, more like Blue Mountain’s than the old South Street’s. Just as at the Nelson County brewpub, the many styles on display give the brewers opportunities to make great beers, but they also set a few traps for lesser varietals, like South Street’s somewhat flat attempt at a kolsch (a lager-esque German ale) and saccharine shandy (beer and fruit juice).
The new South Street food menu, billed by the Smacks as being in line with what they do at Blue Mountain, actually seems to have been taken to the next level. Adventurous apps like roasted asparagus with a fried egg and chevre cheese and “Wanchos,” Asian pulled pork nachos served on wontons, sit alongside a build-your-own mac-n-cheese plate, fish and chips and a pot roast grilled cheese. For those who like to grab a well-made local craft beer but want to bring their family along, there’s a kids’ menu that makes some efforts to step outside the norm—think whole-wheat pasta and roasted chicken in addition to the usual suspects.
Mandi admits some of the pub’s old patrons have been unhappy with the changes, but most locals are likely to appreciate the turnaround. What was once the domain of stodgy regulars and thrifty beer geeks is now a serious addition to the downtown lunch and casual dinner scene.