When celebrated restaurant critic Phyllis Richman stepped down from her position at The Washington Post in May - after giving over 20 years of culinary advice to eager Washingtonians - the scramble began to fill the shoes and the costumes of that culinary celebrity. That's right: costumes, or disguises, rather. In fact, during her tenure, Richman developed quite a reputation for being unknown, wearing subtle disguises so that no one in the restaurant world really knew exactly what she looked like.
Here in Charlottesville, where the stakes are a little lower and the job much less illustrious, restaurant critics can sit anonymously among other students in the area's numerous dining establishments and just sample the fare. But really, who is better at being critical than students, especially after a long afternoon or evening spent studying for an exam, when all one wants is quick service, good food and maybe even a smile.
Richman would definitely be quick to point out that University students may not be the most "discerning eaters," and the restaurants in Charlottesville are not quite as competitive as those in the Washington area - where eating establishments can boom or bust in a matter of months - but she would recognize that they need to still prove themselves to students and the community quickly if they expect to have any staying power in a college town.
So as a student who may not be as discriminating a food critic as Ms. Richman or don different disguises when entering restaurants, I have developed my own skill as a culinary critic - the dislike of cooking and cleaning in my own kitchen.
And using this wonderful trait of culinary ineptitude and simple laziness, over the last three years I have had ample opportunity to sample cuisine from a wide variety of Charlottesville-eating establishments and observe the success, the pitfalls and especially the quality they each offer.
So as an early preview for the fall semester - and especially for those who will be visiting or living in Charlottesville during the remainder of the summer and have the time and desire to try something new - I'm offering this quick guide to some fantastic restaurants that are sure to please if not convert one-timers into regular patrons. Most of them are not the traditional University hangouts, and while they are not the first restaurants that pop to mind, that doesn't mean they aren't excellent - as each fills a unique and important niche in the culinary experience that is Charlottesville.
Down on the Corner:
Whether someone is just starting out as a first year or entering their final semester at the University, the Corner remains students' Mecca for quick bites and casual fare. But who says you can't find anything novel to eat on the Corner?
My first recommendation often takes a while for new students to find, since Two Moons Kitchen is located on 14th Street just a few yards away from much of the hustle on University Way. Two Moons, however, is more than worth the extra steps, with food that is a twist on tradition - healthy Mexican. That's right, Mexican food with organic ingredients, from freshly made squash salsa (as interesting as it sounds) to tomatoes and other veggies that are grown by the chef herself.
Lunch is a-la-carte, and patrons wait in line filling out order forms, while dinner is a little more formal. And with prices averaging around $5 for burritos (you can even choose your own filling), Two Moons is more than worth a try.
Of course my choices on the Corner would not be complete without including , an establishment that has certainly been a landmark in my life at the University. Hidden down the street from Bank of America but always packed at lunchtime, Take It Away has something for everyone. Sandwiches are made on their fresh baked bread with a choice of meat, cheese and dressing (the ever-popular House Dressing is by far the best).
More finicky eaters and vegetarians will love just snacking on a bag of bread ends and dressing, or even on the wide variety of gourmet potato chips lining the wall. A complete meal with a drink can run slightly more than $5, but that does not deter the crowds. And once the restaurant owners decide to allow other sandwich toppings besides sprouts and cucumbers, the restaurant's popularity can only increase.
If ever traveling near the Downtown Mall for a quick lunch or dinner, look no further than the small street of 2nd Street, where Revolutionary Soup is neatly tucked away. Don't be fooled by the bland redbrick exterior, for inside the soup kitchen has a pulse better than some I've visited in New York and London, and it is full of diehard regulars. The menu changes daily, but most soups are just excellent. The lamb curry and the crab and corn chowder are two frequently occurring items, but prices for cups are always below $4, with bowls costing slightly more. All soups are served with a fresh chunk of French bread, and each meal is certainly filling.
While there are some cheaper eating establishments Downtown, the area is also full of some more pricey restaurants with wonderful menus and great service. Arguably the best of these mid-level restaurants is Escafé, located at one end of the Mall, which has both unique style and excellent food. The fare is modern American and comes from the same kitchen as its expensive sister-restaurant Eastern Standard (located upstairs).
While the menus of the two eateries have some overlap, Escafé has many of its own signature pasta and meat dishes, and it's a good way to experience the cooking style of Eastern Standard without busting one's wallet (about $7 to $12 for entrées). Escafé also has outdoor seating on the Mall, perfect for summer nights, and a bar that is a melting pot for University students and community residents.
Created to be the start of a chain of wrap restaurants, Zazus has continued to impress me since my first year at the University. Located out Old Ivy Road, it is a little far to walk but right on the UTS orange line and worth the trip. Most wraps and bowls on the menu are between $4 and $6, and for many, are enough for multiple meals. Fillings range from Thai chicken to pesto to things as simple as a Santa Fe burrito or a Caesar Salad.
Just about everything on the menu is worth sampling once, and I recommend getting the Frequent Buyers Card, because once one starts going, it can become quite an addiction. There are also fresh brownies located near the register and an assortment of smoothies that can be made as one follows a menu selection down the "food assembly line."
With any luck, this Zazus will be just the first of many.
Just down Route 29 is definitely the best and most authentic Chinese restaurant in Charlottesville, Flaming Wok. For Chinese it is a little expensive, pushing over $10 for some dishes, but if one is in the mood for amazing cooking then this is a real treat. The Sesame Chicken is light and not drenched in sauce, and the Triple Delight is full of big shrimp and fresh vegetables.
For those who want to try something different, Flaming Wok also serves sushi and other Japanese food, and Hibachi grills are located at some tables where the food is cooked in front of patrons. Flaming Wok also delivers for those who can't drive down 29, but make sure you fit within their rather small delivery area.
The Last Word:
Though University students frequent many of these restaurants, it's often hard to break out of an old routine of going to the same place and eating the same thing. So as summer continues and fall approaches, even if some of the eateries above don't seem particularly appealing, venture out into the area and find something new and different. I'm not an expert like Richman, but coming from the Washington area I'm still pleasantly surprised at the plethora of eating options Charlottesville has to offer - and many will often astound and please the pickiest eater.