Toasty trio: Three Charlottesville fireplaces worth visiting

Ol’ man Winter has given Central Virginians a break, but we still have to get through March before dogwoods bloom, so chances are good a bitter wind will blow a little more snow and ice our way.

And you know how the song goes: “When the weather outside is frightful, the fire is so delightful….”

Thanks to cracked chimneys and flues, fireplaces are out this year in University of Virginia Lawn rooms, and I hear the Boar’s Head Inn is converting some guest room fireplaces to the gas-fed variety. Plenty of local restaurants offer those, too, but frankly, they’re just not the real thing.

So just where can you go in Charlottesville for an authentic winter fireplace experience?

Here are three of my favorites.  Perhaps Hook readers will know of some others.

Dürty Nelly's Pub & Wayside Deli
2200 Jefferson Park Avenue

A half dozen bar stools and a handful of tables line the intimate and dimly-lit aisle that comprises the larger part of Dürty Nelly’s Pub, a Jefferson Park Avenue establishment that shares a building with the JPA FasMart convenience store and Nelly’s own Wayside Deli dining room.

If the general population may recognize the pub more as a directional landmark than a great place to belly up to a hot fire, Fry’s Spring neighborhood residents like John Anderson know better. Anderson tends the fire as reliably as “Ms. Sherry” tends bar most Thursday and Friday evenings,

“You know what they start the fire with in the mornings, don’t you?” Anderson asks with a grin. “Corn chips rolled up in newspapers.”

Larry “the mayor” Garton, another Nelly’s regular, explains that the reason customers can reliably find the fireplace crackling just about any day the midday temperature drops below 50 degrees is that the fireplace is “the only source of heat for the place.”

Both Garton and Sherry agree the fire is a regular drawing card, “but the best time to come in,” says Garton, “is when there’s about 20 inches of snow on the ground and the snow is blowing and the fireplace is just rolling.”

He recalls how the narrow space was converted in the late 1970s from car wash to gas station, and later to the combination deli and pub of today. A tiny stage at one end accommodates live music several nights a week, but on winter nights the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace with its smoke-blackened portrait of an unknown Cavalier provides the stiffest competition to the overhead televisions.


South Street Brewery
106 South Street

Townies and gownies both know what’s special about Tuesday nights at South Street, but everybody should know that whenever the evening temperatures drop below 60, it’s a good bet that a wood fire will be popping in the popular drinking spot’s two-sided fireplace.

Manager Jason McKown suspects that the chimney and its solid wood hearth dates back to the building’s origins in the late 1800s when it served as the H. H. Hankins Hay and Grain warehouse. The South Street restaurant was established a century later in 1998, and McKown thinks it’s pretty fitting the old granary now boasts an on-premises brewery.

You can lean on the high mantel or the long bar facing the fire, but just like at a zoo, the owners don’t want you to feed it as prominent signage tell patrons that anyone attempting to adjust or augment the blaze "will have to leave the premises.”

So come early and you can claim a coveted spot on one of two couches that flank the other side of the wide brick chimney. There, glass doors keep the flames in sight but the sparks away from coats and sleeves.

While the fireplace is a focal point of the restaurant, McKowen admits “it is a lot of work to manage.” Plus, being a two-and-half story chimney, “it has to be pretty cool outside to get a good draw.”

Timberlake Drugs
322 E. Main St. on Downtown Mall

In summertime, fresh lemonade and arguably the best chocolate milkshakes in town tend to draw customers to the soda fountain at the back of Timberlake's. In winter though, it’s the grilled cheese-and-bacon sandwiches and potato soup that are more likely to hit the spot.

You can while away the better part of an hour perched on a red vinyl stool at the lunch counter talking to Debbie or Connie after they’ve served up a fresh piece of chocolate cake or refilled a coffee cup. But it’s just as fine to pull up a wooden chair at one of the small tables near the fireplace on the back wall where pharmacist John Plantz keeps several logs blazing during long lunch hours on the coldest days.

“You can be sure we have a fire going every time it snows,” declares Billie Midthun who, in addition to keeping the pharmacy's books, takes care of all the baking, sandwich making, and chili cooking.

With its three-panel wire screen and sturdy mantel topped by a large mirror framed in gold-curlicues, this fireplace is just as humble as the snapshot collection of happy patrons that rims the dining room. The fire throws out a cozy glow with the kind of steady warmth that feels great on your back if you’re lucky enough to snag a table that close.

The counter ladies let Plantz know when it’s time to haul more logs from the storage room downstairs, fuel that originated on the pharmacist’s own Crozet-area property.

When he gently lowers one onto hot coals during a damp Saturday afternoon, a nearby customer sighs contentedly and notes how it makes the room smell like “Williamsburg– and marshmallows.”
Among her past lives, anthro-oriented author/blogger Jeanne Nicholson Siler was once the proofreader for the Hook.