When searching through historic downtown Charlottesville for fine dining establishments, one might accidentally disregard the C&O Restaurant because of its simple and bland exterior. But this would be a regrettable mistake.
Situated on the site of an old greasy spoon and former bunkhouse for the C&O Railroad, the C&O is marked by a faded yellow Pepsi sign hanging inauspiciously from the red brick building on East Water Street - making it appear more like a Mom and Pop Store than an upscale restaurant.
Once inside, diners will find a very limited decor, with wood covered walls, a fireplace and a hardwood bar being the only distinctive ornamentation. But it is this quaintness, this inattention to physical detail that gives the C&O its home-like feel, and an ambiance that has made it a Charlottesville landmark for 24 years.
While the restaurant does not focus on eye-catching decorations in any of the dining areas, owner David Simpson and Chef Thomas Bowles concentrate on the food, creating some rather intricate dishes to serve as the centerpiece of the C&O dining experience.
"We want to turn out the best food as possible," Murphy said. We offer "a pretty relaxed atmosphere. The service here is professional, but friendly - we're not stiff here."
Appetizers immediately draw attention on the menu, which resembles old parchment and is written in calligraphy. Selections of fine cheeses, country pate, prosciutto, spinach and walnut filled ravioli and wild mushroom risotto all serve as tempting treats. Ranging from $6 to $10, none of the choices appear particularly complex, but their execution is more than adequate.
The mixed green caesar takes an innovative spin on the classic salad, combining the perfect blend of bitter and sweet greens to compliment the light and peppery dressing.
The task of choosing an entree at C&O proves a little more daunting, because selections range from the simple rack of lamb roasted with rosemary au jus to a beef tenderloin fillet and even lobster filled crepes. The cost of a main dish starts around $13 for pastas and vegetarian dishes, and escalates to upwards of $25 for cuts of beef.
The lobster filled crepes are one of the more non-traditional plates, mixing a blend of fresh scallops, crab, lobster and shitake mushrooms inside a rather thick, moist crepe under a sherry cream sauce. Just a hint of sherry is detectable in the sauce, giving it a sweet spice that is unique among many seafood dressings. But the crepes are soft and a little difficult to manage, and the entire entree is on the rich side. The meal consists of two crepes accompanied by only four asparagus, and though it is tasty, it is not filling. The seafood contained in the crepes is definitely superb and well prepared, but should only be recommended for seafood lovers who also enjoy full and heavy sauces.
On the other hand, the rainbow trout, baked whole in parchment and stuffed with sultanas, almonds, asparagus and curry cream with basamati rice, is an impressively large meal while remaining light on the stomach. The fish is soft, moist and flaky, and the vegetables and seasoning definitely allude to Indian influences. The curry sauce is not spicy at all, but its aroma penetrates the nostrils as the fish dissolves on the tongue, creating a delicious combination of scent and taste that should be at the top of all diners' lists.
According to the waiter, the trout used in this dish always come from the same hatchery in Nelson County, showing some of the restaurant's regional influences.
As a result of the waiters' engaging personalities, and despite large appetizers and entrees, diners will more than likely agree to look at the impressive desert menu. Ranging from $5 to $7, the deserts appeal to a variety of tastes with offerings like a coupe maison sundae, a chocolate cloud cake and a traditional creme caramel.
The chocolate and espresso pot de creme is a fabulous choice, and with the consistency of a mousse and the flavor of coffee, it is the perfect way to end the evening. The quantity is not large, but with its velvety texture and dark chocolate flavor, it adds just the right amount of sweetness to complete the evening.
While the meals and service are definitely at the highest caliber, diners at the C&O cannot expect to get away with a cheap meal. Even the most frugal couple cannot dine for less than $40, but the extra money is well worth it, and prices at the C&O are on par or below many other fine dining establishments in the area. Those who are planning for special evenings for dates or formals will also be hard-pressed to find better food combined with such an intimate and unobtrusive setting.
"We want to provide the best dining experience for sophisticated diners," Magill said. "We just want people to have a good time - we want it to be something special"