A Squared: Dining in Charming Charlottesville, Virginia

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dining in Charming Charlottesville, Virginia

I recently traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia for the wedding of some very good friends of ours. It's a city I have always wanted to visit because of my background in architecture (Thomas Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia campus is kind of a big deal to architects), but I had no idea just how charming I would find the city to be... After visiting, it is totally an area where I could have seen myself as a college student in back in the day. I haven't spent much time in this part of the country and I really fell in love with it's historic east coast feel with a tinge of southern charm. It was like Providence meets Charleston. And while it's a smaller city, I was pretty impressed with the food scene! There weren't a ton of options, but that was almost better because it was easier to sort through recommendations (I loved the Charlottesville 29's list and this best of list from C-Ville.com) and even easier to knock out a few of the top ones in the short time we were there.

So, if you're planning a journey to Virginia and you find yourself in Charlottesville, here are just a few of the places that we tried... and I would recommend them all!

BBQ Exchange
Gordonsville, VA

The BBQ Exchange kept popping up on every Charlottesville restaurant list that I found. I was on the fence about venturing out of the city (it's a 30-40 minute drive from Charlottesville), but when Alex and I found ourselves in town before hotel check-in and a few hours ahead of our friends we decided that was the perfect time to venture into Gordonsville for 'the best' barbecue. Friends, it was worth the trip! This place is a no frills country barbecue joint with smokers in the backyard, but it's run by an accomplished chef with a very impressive background. It's more of a fast casual style restaurant and it's clearly popular among tourists and locals alike-- it was bustling on the Friday afternoon that we stopped in.

There were tons of menu options and it was difficult to choose, but luckily the woman in line in front of us was ordering a takeout order for an army of people so we gained a few extra minutes. I decided on (what else?) my old stand-by: Pulled pork. I opted for the platter instead of a sandwich because I saw the cornbread come out and knew that I had to have a slice of that with my meal. The sticky sweet moist cornbread did not disappoint and I kept picking at it well after I felt full! The pork was fall apart tender with a great smoky flavor. And I topped it with their Colonel Bacon BBQ sauce. Apparently this is Virginia-style barbecue sauce with rich flavors of bacon and mustard and an almost orange hue. I didn't know Virginia had a sauce style, but I like it! I had my pork with a side of their classic coleslaw, which was dressed perfectly (not to wet and not too creamy) and the baked beans, which must have been simmered with that same Colonel Bacon BBQ sauce because they had a very similar flavor. The beans also had big chunks of celery and barbecue meat in them, which added some great texture.

Alex opted for a chopped brisket sandwich, which packed a ton of beef on to a soft roll and he topped it with their Hog Fire sauce, which was the spiciest of the sauces at each table. For sides, he chose the crisp spicy coleslaw and the super rich macaroni and cheese. I snagged a bit of the mac and cheese, which was creamy and delicious.

We left full and happy and completely understanding the hype about this place. Definitely worth the trip out to Gordonsville!

Chaps Ice Cream
On Friday afternoon Alex and I wandered the downtown mall shopping area for a bit and decided we needed a little something sweet after our barbecue lunch. We stopped in at Chaps, an adorable old fashioned ice cream parlor with the sweetest staff ever. In addition to ice cream, they also serve traditional diner-style food and fresh baked donuts. Yum! I opted for a mocha chip milkshake, which had a rich mocha flavor and tons of chocolate chips. Alex went for a waffle cone with birthday cake ice cream. It was rich and sweet and studded with rainbow confetti sprinkles. This was the perfect stop to make on that hot afternoon!

Three Penny Cafe
A few of our friends arrived in Charlottesville in time for dinner, so we ventured down Main Street to the adorable Three Penny Cafe for dinner. Alex and I had spotted it earlier and fell in love with the look of the place: A smallish restaurant in a converted service station with a sizable patio in front. We dined out on the patio that night, which was a welcome change for those of us venturing to Virginia from the north!

Three Penny's menu is described as "casual gourmet," which seemed pretty fitting. The menu was a combination of approachable American dishes with an upscale flair. Two of the girls at the table shared the mussels in mustard vermouth cream sauce with saffron, bacon and nutmeg and had great things to say about that dish.

I ordered the crab pizza for my entree. A multigrain crust was topped with a spread of ricotta, crab meat, salty pancetta, a touch of bright lemon zest, and then baked and finished with fresh peppery arugula. It was a great flavor combination and the perfect balance of brightness and richness. I swapped a few slices of this pizza for some of Julie's Spanish pizza which was topped with a delicious combination of manchego, fig, and Serrano ham.

I also spotted Brussels sprouts on the side dish menu and ordered some of those as well. They were sauteed in white wine and butter along with red onion and bacon for that savory, sweet, and sour flavor combination that you want from any Brussels sprout dish.

I would also mention that the prices here were super reasonable-- that's possibly because I'm a big city dweller used to paying $14 for a mediocre glass of wine-- but we had a great meal and cocktails here and didn't come close to breaking the bank!

World of Beer
And speaking of drinks... World of Beer was just down Main Street from Three Penny Cafe and it was the perfect spot for us to kick back with a drink or two and catch up. I wasn't aware that World of Beer was a franchise, but we were really impressed when we walked in and saw that they serve hundreds of different beers-- including a lot of great local brews like the Potter's Craft Dry Cider from Virginia that I sipped on that night. World of Beer also had a huge outdoor patio with a few firepits and loungey furniture, perfect for chatting and for listening to the live band that was performing there that night.

We got a little hungry later into the evening and ended up ordering a few bar snacks. The giant German Pretzel was huge and the perfect accompaniment for our beers. The Tavern Taters (a.k.a. Tot-chos) were everything bar food should be: cheesy, spicy, and a little over the top. This plate of crispy tater tots arrived topped with tons of beer cheese, and bacon, jalapenos, sour cream, and scallions.

Bodo's Bagels
When I was doing research on Charlottesville restaurants I was surprised to see a college bagel shop show up on pretty much every single list. But I can't ignore a good review-- or four of them-- so on Saturday morning we stopped at one of Bodo's three locations for a quick breakfast before exploring the UVA campus. This location was right at the UVA "Corner" and had ample outdoor seating that we took advantage of while we enjoyed our bagels. Bodo's bakes fresh bagels all day long, so they don't even toast them for you because they're always right out of the oven. I went with a sesame bagel with plain cream cheese and it was enormous, chewy, and as they promised: hot out of the oven. This is a great spot for a quick breakfast on the go and since they offer 3 locations, there's likely one near wherever you're staying in Charlottesville.

Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
Ace Biscuit & Barbecue is another Charlottesville food gem that kept surfacing in many of the lists and posts that I looked at in my research. I had it on my list of potential spots to visit, but after our friends Tim and Danielle had brunch there on Saturday and raved about it I decided we needed to make a stop too. Alex and I made a quick detour here on Sunday morning for a big breakfast on our way to the airport. Ace is small spot with just a few seats inside and some long picnic tables outside if you're dining in. They're open all day on weekdays and for breakfast and lunch on the weekends.You order at the counter with the cool hipster guys that work there and the food comes out hot and fast. And it's the definition of southern comfort.

Ace has a few pre-designed sandwiches on the menu, but they also give you the option to build your own with several different breakfast meats, cheeses, and eggs any style. They're all built on Ace's fresh homemade biscuits that are dense and moist and buttery, but not greasy. They are delicious! I decided to create my own sandwich and my biscuit came topped with bacon, fried green tomatoes (because we were in the south, after all), smoked pimiento cheese (again, we were in the south), and a fried egg over medium. Though the combination was my creation, I will give Ace props for a really good breakfast sandwich. The tomatoes were nice and crispy and the pimiento cheese tasted fresh and homemade and had a great smoky flavor. And their housemade biscuits made the perfect base for this breakfast sandwich of champions.

Always one to go rogue with breakfast, Alex opted to order something not at all breakfast-y for his meal. He ordered the pork spare rib sandwich, which consisted of a toasty bun topped with a huge amount of tender shredded rib meat pulled right off the bone. A knife and fork sandwich, for sure. On the side, we shared an order of the hashbrowns. I'm not sure how the cook these... maybe in bacon grease? But they are salty and flavorful and just the right amount of greasy. They're so so good. No ketchup necessary-- they are tasty just the way they are!

It was a great trip and such a lovely little city. We didn't get nearly as much time here as I would have liked! Restaurants on my list for next time: Albemerle Baking Company, Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar, C&O, Mas, and The Whiskey Jar.

Have you been to Charlottesville? What are your favorite spots to visit there?

A Squared

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