This year is the bicentennial of the founding of the University of Virginia, so it's a good time to visit what some say Thomas Jefferson considered to be his proudest achievement. Even for a college town with a sophisticated student population, Charlottesville seems to have a higher per capita ratio of foodies than other cities. There are enough restaurants that a local food writer creates the annual Charlottesville 29, and that list includes a diverse mix of farm-to-table, Mexican, Asian, new American and seafood restaurants. Perhaps thanks in part to Jefferson's own forays into winemaking and the climate of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the countryside around the city is home to a thriving wine scene, including the Monticello Wine Trail.
Start the day at the Corner, the neighborhood that is C-Ville's main center of activity, just adjacent to the entrance to the grounds of the University of Virginia (which cognoscenti know is never called its "campus"). A friendly, homey choice is the Pigeon Hole (the-pigeon-hole.site123.me, 11 Elliewood Ave., 434-984-0078), in a boxy, periwinkle house. Its front patio, wooden porch and inside rooms are set up for dining. Some satisfying breakfast items are the Pigeons in a Hole, two eggs cooked over easy inside holed-out toast ($7); or the egg biscuits, eggs scrambled with cheese and tucked inside two fluffy biscuits ($8.50). Choose home fries, which are spicy enough that I had to ask the waitress what was in them. ("I think cinnamon?") The coffee is an endless cup ($3) and the chocolate chip pancakes are dark with chips ($8.50). Since this is a small place, it's a good idea to come early enough to beat out UVA students working off a night of partying, especially if a Cavaliers team won the day before.
Mel's Cafe (719 W. Main St., 434-971-8819), in a 1960s-era building on the edge of what was Vinegar Hill, the African-American neighborhood razed in the 1960s in the name of urban development, is situated midway between Charlottesville's downtown mall and the university. The walls are decorated with newspaper pictures from the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and some kind of sporting event is always playing on the TV above the counter. Mel Walker, the owner and chef, greets each customer whether they are regulars or out-of-towners who stumble upon the casual place. Students might be drawn by the prices, but the tender fried chicken will make you forever compare all other fried chicken to Mel's. For less than $8, you'll get a platter with two substantial pieces of chicken and two sides, including mashed potatoes with gravy and coleslaw. The burgers ($3.50 for a five-ounce burger and $4.70 for an eight-ouncer) are juicy and fresh, and the iced tea is very sweet. Nonetheless, we treated ourselves to a slice of sweet potato pie ($2.25) to top off the meal.
In a rustic building near the former C&O train station, the C&O Restaurant (candorestaurant.com, 515 E. Water St., 434-971-7044), has been in existence in some form since 1976. Today, in contrast to its rough-and-ready exterior and barn wood floors, the restaurant serves locally sourced, sophisticated "new American" cuisine. The upstairs room once served as a sleeping area for workers from the nearby railroad, but today is a cozy and intimate spot for a meal. Start with a Lone Tree, a smooth cocktail made with vermouth and gin, served with a lemon twist. Favorites were the very rich pear and pecorino ravioli appetizer ($15), and the braised lamb in a tomato sauce with ricotta gnocchi ($16). Also tasty: roasted Scottish salmon with puy lentils ($30) and seared scallops with whipped cauliflower and a golden-raisin caper sauce ($16). If you can save room, the sticky toffee pudding with mascarpone ($9) or the chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce ($9) are luscious.
- - -
Bruno is a writer based in Washington. Find her on Twitter: @brunodebbie.