Vu Nguyen made tongues wag on West Main by opening Moto Pho Co.
City of Brotherly Love native Lou Renfrow, center, brought his Philly cheesesteaks to Charlottesville.
The year in food was marked by something surprising, considering the economy: the opening and/or re-purposing of a lot of new restaurants and eateries, over 40 at least. Of course, there were also many great restaurant stories throughout the year, and here are a few.
The fall and rise of St. Maarten Café
After 26 years, St. Maarten Café on The Corner abruptly closed, eliciting an outpouring of nostalgia with immediate grief. A Friends of St. Maarten Café Facebook group earned 350 members by 6pm on the day this news went live at readthehook.com, and some of those commenting described bursting into tears at hearing the news. The following day, a vigil was held outside the door of the restaurant, with people leaving flowers and cards. Owners Jim and Lisa Roland, who had chosen to retire, said they were stunned by the reaction. Remarkably, only a few weeks later, the restaurant re-opened, saved by new investors. Along the way, some naughty prankster stole the restaurant's icon wooden sign, but later returned it with a poem:
O the good people of St. Maarten's,
Please give a moment to make amends.
We thought your bar was closed for good,
And wrongfully stole your sign made of wood.
We're truly sorry, we mean you no trouble,
Your sign will be back, right on the double.
Returned to the cafe later tonight,
Give us a chance to make things right.
We're dreadfully sorry we caused such a fuss,
All that we ask is you please forgive us.
Just one wish, we think it is small,
Would you name a burger after us all?
A foodie treasure turns 10
Feast!, the gourmet deli-grocery built around artisanal cheeses, and a champion of local food producers, celebrated its 10th birthday in 2012. According to co-owner Eric Gertner, the store has sold over 100,000 pounds of cheese and 1,000 legs of prosciutto while ringing up over 750,000 orders– including delivering 10,000 gift boxes and 65,000 bottles of wine. Along the way, Gertner and his photogenic wife and co-owner, Kate Collier, have hosted food speakers, and now they plan to transform the patio near the parking area into four-season seating. They note a five-fold increase in sales over the years, so what's the secret? "Keep it simple," laughs Gertner.
Like Waters for food
Alice Waters, owner and executive chef of the world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, visited Monticello this year to create a feast of feasts on the mountain. "I'm here because our democracy is buried here," said Waters, during a chat on the West Lawn as her team prepared for the meal. "Jefferson was our first edible educator. He took perfect notes. And he was both a farmer and a gastronome. We just need to dig it all up and eat it."
Just two years ago, locally owned Arch's Frozen Yogurt, with locations on Ivy Road, the Corner, and Emmet Street, was the only fro-yo game in town. Today, you can't get away from them. In addition to Arch's, Sweet Frog (Downtown, Barracks, Hollymead), Bloop (Pantops), and Berry Berry (the Corner) arrived. And it might be only a matter of time before the big national players, Pinkberry and Yogurtland, take up residence. So far, competition among the local shops has been civil, but could it get heated as more shops open? On the West Coast, for example, competition between Pinkberry, Red Mango, and Yogurtland, along with dozens of other upstarts, became so heated that it was dubbed "The Frozen Yogurt Wars" by the L.A. Times. We'll have to eat and see.
It used to be that restaurant cooking oil was tough to get rid of. Indeed, restaurant owners had to pay companies to take it away. Today, the stuff is valuable, so much so that crooks are stealing the stuff. Indeed, with gas prices so high, the demand for biodiesel has been rising. According to the National Biodiesel Board, one billion gallons of the stuff is now being produced every year. At peak times, it sells on the street for as much a $4 a gallon. Greenlight Biofuels, a locally-based company founded in 2007 collects and processes waste oil in Virginia and Maryland from bins out back of restaurant to produce biodiesel fuel, and they pay a pretty penny. But a company spokesman told the Hook that they lose 20 and 40 percent of their oil to thieves.
After 32 years, C&O Restaurant owner Dave Simpson passed the torch to former Keswick executive chef Dean Maupin. The 37-year-old Maupin came full circle. Before apprenticing at the Greenbrier resort, before cooking under the guidance of local chefs Tim Burgess and Vincent Derquenne at Metro, before the Boar's Head, and before running the kitchens at Keswick and the Clifton Inn, he worked for Simpson at the C&O. "I'm so proud of him," Simpson said. "He's worked hard and done really well for himself."
Crozet Pizza has been in the same spot in downtown Crozet for 35 years, but that began changing in 2012 as the owners announced that their iconic slices would be coming to the Corner on Elliewood Avenue. ("Mid to late January," says the man answering the phone at the western venue earlier this week.) For over three decades, a journey to Crozet Pizza has been a legendary rite of passage for students and newcomers, with a big part of the mystique being the drive out to little Crozet for slices of the most divine, homemade pizza in a quirky, ramshackle building with a wood stove, well-worn booths, and walls of business cards and other memorabilia. Over the years, that mystique has put Crozet on the national map and landed the little pizzeria on a bunch of impressive "best of" lists, including National Geographic's travel guide, which dubbed it the best pizza in the world. Later, USAToday included Crozet Pizza in a list of 51 great American pizza parlors.
Mall food explosion
Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of good restaurants on the Downtown Mall. Indeed, when Bill Hamilton and his wife, Kate, opened Hamilton's at First & Main on the Downtown Mall 17 years ago, a seasoned restaurant vet told them it was a losing proposition. Today, there are 48 full-service restaurants on the Mall, and a lease for a space can cost an arm and a leg. Overall, there are 77 places to consume some kind of food, drink, or sweets on the Mall, and some wondered this year if there were actually too many places.
"I think the amount of restaurants we have on the mall is reaching its saturation point," says Brookville Restaurant owner Harrison Keevil. "At this point we're in a good place because there are still differences between all the restaurants on the mall. But if many more keep opening up we'll start to see many of the same restaurants and those differences will disappear. "
Still, as Hamilton pointed out:
"Robust competition raises everyone's game and creates more value for customers," he said. "Of course, the downside is increased churn among businesses, but we all have to adapt and work harder to earn our market share."
Song Song's Zhou & Bing
Escafé's new spot on Water St.
Fuel Co. space re-opens
Calypso (also on the "other" list)
One Meatball Place
Moto Pho Co.
Citizen Burger Bar
Plank Road Exchange
Milli Joe Coffee
Lou's Philly Steaks
Glass Haus Kitchen
Champion Brewing Company
Heritage on Main Restaurant and Sports Bar
Black & Orange
Cyclone Anaya's Mexican Kitchen
Travinia Italian Kitchen
Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
Berry Berry Frozen Yogurt
M&M Lounge and Restaurant.
Kirt's Ice Cream
Buck's Elbow Pub
Great Scott's Popcorn
Long John Silver
Expresso Italian Restaurant & Pancake House.