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The enduring allure of Zocalo, a Charlottesville staple

The Latin American restaurant entices local diners with delicious food and vibrant nightlife

Zocalo lies at the heart of Downtown life, demanding attention from passersby with its grand facade and sprawling patio.
Zocalo lies at the heart of Downtown life, demanding attention from passersby with its grand facade and sprawling patio.

Zocalo has been a fixture of downtown Charlottesville since 2003. The restaurant charms patrons with artful Latin American dishes and spirited ambiance. Though an evening at Zocalo comes at a steeper price, Zocalo is a great place to splurge on an intimate dinner or a night out with friends.

Zocalo is located on the Downtown Mall on East Main Street — about a 30-minute walk or 15-minute trolley ride from Central Grounds. They are open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, until 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday and until 10:30 p.m. on Saturday. Zocalo encourages diners to arrive with reservations, which they can book with the Resy widget on their website.

Zocalo’s original co-owners, friends Ivan Rekosh and Andrew Silver, met in culinary school in 1998. When they reconnected in 2002, they resolved to open a restaurant together. They sensed an opportunity in Charlottesville, a city that — at the time — was short on Latin American dining. Rekosh and Silver took advantage of the void in the market, opening Zocalo in 2003. Neither chef hails from Latin American heritage. Even so, the restaurant thrived, and Zocalo has been one of the most popular dining locales in the city for the last 20 years.

The restaurant is aptly named for its position on the central plaza of the Downtown Mall — “zócalo” in Spanish loosely translates to “central square.” Zocalo lies at the heart of downtown life, demanding attention from passersby with its grand facade and sprawling patio.

For our Friday evening dinner, my date and I sat in Zocalo's stylish dining room. A red glow under the bar electrified the dimly lit space. Abstract artwork adorned exposed brick walls, and poppy Latin beats lightened the mood. A chain mail curtain separated the dining room from the bar, but the transparent ringlets kept the restaurant feeling big.

Zocalo’s menu is quite varied. The dishes range in size from platitos — little plates — to platos principales — main dishes. The menu features several vegetarian options, and a separate gluten-free menu is available upon request. The chefs at Zocalo have scarcely revised their menu since the restaurant first opened, a mark of their consistency over the years. However, they often serve specials that bring new, alternative dishes to the table — pun intended.

To begin, my date and I ordered the Papas Bravas special, a classic Spanish tapa of fried potato wedges. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside. They paired nicely with the sauces on the plate — a fiery red pepper mojo picón and a piquant parsley chimichurri. The dish was at once smooth and sharp — it roused our taste buds for the meal to come.

Our first entrée was the Black Bean and Corn Relleno, one of Zocalo’s signature dishes. The chefs elevate the classic relleno, a stuffed chile pepper, with nuanced texture and flavor. The relleno was filled with creamy corn and beans and coated in crushed tortilla chips. Underneath the relleno laid a serving of smoked tomato grits and a drizzle of cilantro buttermilk honey. The dish was topped with pico and microgreens for extra freshness. The relleno was truly mouthwatering — I closed my eyes to savor the rich complexity of each bite.

Our second entrée was the Seared Duck Breast. The tender duck was bathed in a sweet raisin compote. Bacon-braised swiss chard added earthy notes to the dish. Beside the chard sat a bread pudding made with manchego cheese and caramelized onions. Though a bit unusual, the gooey, savory pudding was a lovely complement to the duck and the chard.

With our entrées, we ordered one platito — the Green Chili and Goat Cheese Couscous. The dish arrived at our table looking like a little plate of peas — the pasta-like pearls were doused in a goat cheese sauce tinted chili green. The velvety couscous and sharp chili-cheese melted together on my tongue, making for a luscious accompaniment to the main dishes.

Lastly, we tried the Mexican Chocolate Bread Pudding. The chefs at Zocalo put a Latin twist on the classic custardy dessert. The pudding was light and eggy with a subtle chocolate flavor. On top of the pudding, a scoop of vanilla ice cream infused with pasilla chile added some delicate spice. The dish was an exciting finale to our meal.

The restaurant was bursting at the seams when we left, with several parties waiting in line for a table. Zocalo is popular for their trendy dining room and bubbly bar scene, but they also draw crowds for their frequent dance parties. If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife in Charlottesville, Zocalo is the place to go.

Zocalo is delicious and fun, but the appeal comes with a price — our dishes ranged from $7 to $29. Although Zocalo is a bit expensive, it’s worth the cost to indulge in their flavorful dishes and lively ambiance.