As competition has grown among Charlottesville’s high-end grocery stores, a trend has emerged of adding bars. I’ve walked past these odd grocery store bars countless times but it has never occurred to me to pull up a stool and order a glass of beer before picking up milk and vegetables. Which invites the questions: Who in the heck goes to a grocery store bar—and why do they do it?
An investigation was needed. A Saturday night pub crawl, in which I was determined to drink beer at three area grocery store bars, ensued. I enlisted the help of a few friends: Jeff Diehm, Jeff’s girlfriend, Sierra Hammons, and Colleen Buchanan, our designated driver.
The bar at the Barracks Road Harris Teeter is tucked in along the wall behind the wine section, at the front end of the store. It’s easy to miss. Three patrons were perched atop bar stools as we approached. A baseball game was playing on a large TV and six taps stood near a wide selection of bottled beer. If you look straight ahead, it kind of feels like a normal bar. Turn around and you’ll see, well, a grocery store.
When we saw the prices, it started to feel less like a normal bar—in a good way. All six draft beers are $4 a pint, all the time. Bottles are $3—and that isn’t just Bud Light. Three bucks will get you a bottle of nearly any of the hundreds of 12-ounce bottled beers that Harris Teeter carries.
“We have really good prices and really good food here,” said Charles, our bartender.
Charles was right. It turns out that you can buy any prepared food from the deli section and bring it over to the bar to eat. Not only can you do this, but they encourage it: You get $1 off your beer with the purchase of a prepared food item.
There is no other bar in Charlottesville where you can eat and drink at these prices. The taps from Three Notch’d and Starr Hill cost less for a pint than at those breweries.
A woman walked over with, inexplicably, a basket of laundry and a dog. She ordered a beer and began chatting with another patron. Even at the grocery store, bars have colorful regulars.
Jeff got up, grabbed a bag of pretzels from the snack aisle and opened them on the bar. Charles scanned them and added them to our tab. In fact, your whole cart of groceries can be rung up while you sip a pint of beer or a glass of wine (the bar does not offer liquor).
“I just switched grocery stores,” Jeff declared.
Reluctantly, we pushed off to Whole Foods.
The bar at Whole Foods was built with better materials and décor than the one at Harris Teeter. And our bartender, Brenden, was knowledgeable and helpful. But it wasn’t the same kind of place.
“On Friday nights, you get a lot of single people with pizza for one who stop here for a drink before going home,” a woman seated at the bar told me. “It’s like their moment of feeling like they’ve interacted with the world.”
An eight-ounce pour of a beer called Dragon’s Milk cost $8. That set the tone for the rest of the tap list, which isn’t cheap. But Whole Foods does have a barroom edge most customers probably don’t know about: They’ll honor a growler from anyone.
We felt a sense of being physically in the way at the Whole Foods bar. Repeatedly, shoppers with carts and baskets mumbled a “pardon me” as they pushed past us. The traffic flow discouraged us from lingering, but Whole Foods does have its own set of regulars, some who stop by every day.
Duly restrained, we moved on to our final stop of the night: Wegmans.
The Charlottesville Wegmans dropped in last year like a fortress of food. You measure that place in acres, not square feet. And it set aside a corner of that acreage for a bar and restaurant called The Pub. The space feels luxurious compared with other grocery store bars.
“This is basically an airport bar with different things rolling by on wheels,” Jeff observed.
Wegmans went to lengths far beyond Harris Teeter or Whole Foods with a full-service restaurant and bar, including mixed drinks. Sometimes it even has live music.
Wegmans has nine taps, mostly between five and six bucks per pint. It has a happy hour from 4-6 pm, Monday through Friday, and $5 appetizers, including mussels and a barbecue-bacon burger. We snacked on perfect fresh, raw, salty Chesapeake Bay oysters.
Jeff was right. Wegmans bar does feel like an airport bar, but it doesn’t drain your wallet the way a typical airport bar does. I can see how someone who lives nearby might pick this as his neighborhood hangout, and stop by often for a few pints and a burger, or a dozen oysters.
“I enjoyed Harris Teeter the most,” Sierra says. “I felt like I was less in the way than at Whole Foods. …I would definitely go there again to pregame before going downtown where the more expensive beers are.”
The unanimous winner of the night was Harris Teeter, for selection, value, food and atmosphere. Charles’ service as bartender sealed the deal. But at any of Charlottesville’s grocery store bars, there is a deal waiting for the adventurous, the weird and the cheap.