The C&O: a friendly port in a stormy world
For 30 years now, Dave Simpson has been holding down the fort at the C&O restaurant, which put Charlottesville on the fine dining map when original owners Sandy McAdams and Philip Stafford opened the place in 1976.
Back then you could count the number of fine-dining restaurants in town on two hands. Today, you need a calculator.
Remarkably, the cozy place in the funky building on Water Street is still setting the standard in Charlottesville cuisine. As for Simpson, he's manged to maintain the restaurant's good reputation for three decades now with a combination of hard work and some fine people skills. One of the few missteps he's made was straying away from the C&O and partnering with wayward accountant Jim Baldi (who is still wanted on felony embezzlement charges) on the Bel Rio fiasco, a restaurant whose noise and financial problems made Simpson feel put in a "bad guy" role. He parted ways with Baldi and issued a public apology to the people in Belmont "who found this enterprise a nuisance while I was involved."
Back where he belongs now, Simpson, who grew up in Charlottesville in the 1950s, the son of a City cop, recently took time out to reflect on the last 30 years.
"Growing up as a cop’s son then was a little like growing up on the Andy Griffith Show," says Simpson. "My mom worked at Sperry, and my brother Mike and I graduated from Lane High school."
In 1968, Simpson's mom took him to lunch at the local Shoney's for his 13th birthday, and at one point asked the management there if they might have a weekend job for her son.
"I think they were so charmed by her that the idea of saying no never crossed their minds," recalls Simpson. " I started the next Saturday. I loved my new environment and dove headlong into the restaurant biz and have been captivated by it ever since."
About five years after McAdams and Stafford opened the C & O, they offered to sell it to employee Simpson.
"They were very generous of spirit and finance," says Simpson. " The revelation that they were willing to take a chance on me is up there in my fondest memories."
The Dish: So, what is the secret to running a successful restaurant?
Dave Simpson: In a word, hospitality. Generally providing care and kindness to whoever needs it. Of course, starting with a plausible formula in a viable market place is essential. Being attentive to current food trends, respectful, and confident regarding change, knowing when and when not to alter your course.
Dish: What are some of your fondest memories?
DS: I have enjoyed watching the hundreds of kids who arrive at the C&O doorstep ready to work–- but sometimes not quite ready for the world–- gain confidence and experience. They leave with a good work ethic, and many have gone on to do great things. A memory I will always cherish was when we had the C&O Club, which we stopped operating in 1988. One night Townes Van Zandt played here. After he finished his show we sat around drinking whiskey and playing liars poker. He was one of my heroes.
Dish: Do you have a list of celebrities you’ve served?
DS: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward. Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Sarah Vaughan, Morgan Freeman, Barbra Streisand, Mose Allison, Cristo and Jean Claude, Jesse Colin Young, Scooter Libby, Neil Young, Peter Rowan, Delbert McClinton, Faye Wray, Jimmy Stewart.
Dish: What make the C&O so special?
DS: A marvelous esprit de corps among the staff. We have been lucky and careful hiring smart and funny people and letting them illustrate their character with in the flexible framework of administration.
[Former bartender] Barry Umberger and I started working at the C&O on the same day in April of 1980. We spent over 30 years together and have not had an enduring cross moment between us. Barry and his wife, long time bistro waitress and C&O stalwart, Dara, took to the high seas in September. They have been planning that moment for many years. I was excited to see them realize that dream, but I am really going to miss Barry.
The C&O has always been the home of the second chance. It has served as a safe haven for some people battered by the world and needing a place start again. I am one of those people.
Dish: What advice would you give someone starting a restaurant.
DS: Work in various styles of restaurants. Try different positions for a few years to see if the lifestyle suits you. If you do start your own restaurant, be patient; nothing happens overnight. For years I thought I was a huge success if I could just break even. I think it is prudent to set your appetite for tasks high and your expectations on return low and then hope something good happens to you. Trust, forgiveness, keep an open heart and your vision clear. Resist temptation, stay sober, and try to avoid complicated partnerships. There are no dues that you can pay today that will make you exempt from having to pay them again tomorrow. Every day it starts brand new.