Boasting gorgeous mountain scenery, a beautiful college campus, distinguished history, and a wonderful small-town feel, Charlottesville (VA) is a great vacation destination. The home to the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is situated near the blue-ridge parkway, and is a short 3-4 hour drive from the Triangle. It makes for a fabulous weekend getaway, especially at this time of year. The ride up is lovely, passing through Danville and Lynchburg and by countless weathered barns and a handful of road-side antique shops where you can spend hours combing through mountains of junk, or gems, depending on your disposition and luck.
My wife and I recently went for a short weekend jaunt, with one of our goals being to explore the city’s great foodie/locavore culture. Our first meal was lunch at Feast!, a gourmet grocery in the city’s awesome Main St. Market. Home to an organic butcher, a florist, a seafood vendor, an excellent bakery, a cooking supply store, and a restaurant or two (in addition to the gourmet grocery), the market is a true foodie mecca, the likes of which would be a perfect addition to the Triangle culinary scene (Raleigh in particular). Sure, we have a Southern Season, but the neighborhood feel of Charlottesville’s Market, combined with the florist, butcher, and bakery, set it apart as someplace you’d want to go all the time. Feast! is like a tiny, fancier Whole Foods, with prices to match. A small 3oz (?) tub of local pumpkin chevre (incredible, by the way) set us back over $7. It’s little café serves up fantastic sandwiches and sides: my wife tried a turkey, cheddar, and fig chutney on ciabatta, and I had the local prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella, and basil on a beautiful baguette. A small cup of butternut squash-lentil soup was equally as satisfying.
Later that afternoon, we headed to the Vintage Virginia apple festival, about 15 miles outside of town. Here I tried Winesap, Gold Rush, Pippin, Rome, and many other varieties of the delicious fruit, and came away with a few pounds worth for home. The highlight of this adventure, though, was the apple cider donut from the Carpe Donut truck. Warm, fluffy, and not overly sweet, it was certainly one of the best donuts I’ve ever had.
Dinner that night was terrific as well. The Local, as the name implies, serves up a delightful modern menu of pastas and mains prepared with regional ingredients (witness the “60 mile salad”, in which all components are sourced from within that radius). Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it’s a small restaurant with lots of charm. To begin with, we were served perfect crusty baguette slices with herb butter. My wife and I both opted for the chicken dish – stuffed with goat cheese and VA country ham, and served with some sort of brandy-apple-cream sauce over a roasted potato medley. Although the chicken was a bit overcooked and the potatoes were truly miniscule, the creamy sauce was sensational and the price ($15) was great considering the quality of ingredients used. I thought asparagus was an odd choice for a seasonal vegetable accompaniment, but I didn’t ask about it.
The next day, we met friends for a late brunch at L’Etoile. This restaurant is located on two floors of a small, cute downtown building. The effect is residential, French, and seductive. For lack of a better description, it is ridiculously charming. Despite the Frenchiness, the brunch menu features the staples of upscale Southern American brunches: biscuits, shrimp and grits, eggs, and so on. I opted for the “3 star breakfast” which included a biscuit with sausage gravy (very nice), scrambled eggs (good), bacon (poor), and hash browns (worse). My wife had a hollandaise-english muffin kind of thing, which featured some very runny eggs. The shrimp and grits looked nice but the portion size was tiny. And a chicken salad sandwich looked very average. We all loved the space, but the meal was a bit disappointing. On top of that, the service, including the hostess, was best described as bewildered. I’d try somewhere else next time.
Before heading out of town, we picked up dinner (for the road) at the Greenwood Grocery and Gourmet Market, about 10 miles west of town. The place was like a country store/Feast! hybrid, with all manner of local groceries and a little counter serving prepared foods. Unfortunately, being Sunday evening, the sandwiches were not available, though they sounded oh-so tempting (think house made local beef meatballs with homemade marinara and provolone on ciabatta). We ended up with some curry chicken salad (good but underseasoned), a loaf of local sourdough (excellent), and some regional potato chips and root beers (respectable). As we ate in the car on the way home, passing right by McDonalds and Wendy’s, we thought: when are we coming back?