A walk on the Downtown Mall can put on display just how expansive Charlottesville’s food scene really is. Among the brick pathways are dozens of restaurants competing for your patronage. Neon signs, grand entryways, smiling hosts and hostesses — these restaurants hope to draw you in off the street and into their often-bustling interiors. But what if there was a restaurant that intentionally hid itself away — a high-end, exclusive eatery where you have to know someone just to get a table and the only way to enter is to know the secret code? Charlottesville’s The Alley Light may not provide that exact fantasy, but it certainly gets close. Tucked away in an alleyway off an alleyway on the mall, The Alley Light does not compete with the neon signage just a few feet away. Instead, it is marked only by a single white light above its doorway, encased in a wrought-iron lantern — if the light is on, that’s the signal to head inside. Tucked away above another restaurant and up a flight of stairs of its own, The Alley Light is dripping with a feeling of secrecy. Once properly greeted by your host, who waits in the hallway, patrons are led into a room radiating casual elegance. Traditional tables and chairs are pushed up against intimate lounge areas, and the dark room is washed in golden light coming from a bar that spans an entire wall. A low ceilinged, windowless room — The Alley Light has the quiet energy of an inside joke and walking inside is like joining an exclusive club. One thing The Alley Light hasn’t managed to keep quiet, however, is the quality of their food. In the tapas-style French lounge, expect to be eating deliciously creamy pâtés and smoky aged meats and cheeses. Tapas sizes can vary, from smaller plates to be eaten selfishly to large portions for the whole table. Like any self-respecting French restaurant, the wine list is roughly double the size of the main menu, featuring prominently local wines from the surrounding area. The restaurant features a full service bar and standing area, packing the house on its busiest of nights. I would definitely recommend calling ahead for a weekend dinner — it seems word may be spreading about The Alley Light’s secret allure. I have a bit of a love affair with tapas. Besides simply being the newest, hippest way to indecisively order almost everything on the menu, tapas lend themselves to an experience beyond just the dining. Tapas are about sharing and being adventurous, with more room for those riskier dishes on the menu. They invite you to talk to your server and craft a dining experience that a traditional appetizer-entrée style just can’t compete with. And, of course, The Alley Light pulls off tapas expertly and with uniquely French flair. Dishes combine savory and sweet, like carpaccio with lemon or foie gras over cooked pears and sweetbread. Smoky, savory chickpea spread with sliced chorizo was a personal highlight, and we rounded off our dinner with a melt-in-your-mouth pork belly over crispy sweet apples. Like the atmosphere itself, the food is casually elegant. Flavors are both playful with accents of sweetness yet feature complexity with unexpected combinations. I think this running undercurrent of combining sweet and savory, playful with serious, is in the foie gras. While delicious, foie gras’ rich, fatty flavor is a staple on a French menu. However, adding in a syrupy sweet pear preserve and an assortment of bright, vinaigrette soaked vegetables brought much needed freshness to a very standard plate. The Alley Light excels in fun with its cooking, and its unique flavor combinations kept me wanting more. I hope I haven’t ruined the secret, but I couldn’t resist talking about this restaurant any longer. The hidden stairwell, the ever-changing specialty menu, the swanky but industrial decor — The Alley Light feels like the best kept secret in the city. Word may be out about The Alley Light, but it hasn’t seen even the slightest quality drop because of it. Join the club just by knowing where to look, and take a walk under the alley light.