Food for thought: Restaurants lose, foodies win in '09

dish-cantina-aAfter 32 years, Martha's  Caf© on the Corner closed, and the site became Cantina.

Last year, Dish predicted it would be a rough year economically for restaurants, a call you certainly didn’t have to be a psychic to make.

Historically, meals tax revenues have been a cash cow for the city and the county, with the two governments hauling in over $12 million in 2008 amid a 4 to 5 percent annual rise. But as the recession dragged on in 2009, those numbers began to drop for the first time in a decade. In the County, meals tax revenues dropped 12 percent at the end of the fiscal year in July, and in the City they dropped 5 percent.

Not devastating, perhaps, but for restaurateurs accustomed to robust yearly growth, 2009 has been a challenge. Indeed, Dish spoke to dozens of restaurateurs over the course of the year, and when asked how business was going, “We’re hanging in there” was a constant refrain. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for us foodies.

Folks have been watching their wallets, and they’ve been more discerning about how they spend their restaurant dollars. As a result, restaurants have had to raise their game to keep customers coming back. In 2009, being mediocre was not an option. Moreover, the malaise didn’t stop culinary entrepreneurs from taking the plunge, as 30 new restaurants and eateries opened in 2009, while only 17 places closed.

Indeed, one sign of times was the Hook’s inaugural Restaurant Week in July, a typically slow time for restaurants. Eight restaurants signed up for the event, offering three-course prix fixe menus for just $25.

Not surprisingly, given the typical cost of eating out at a fine restaurant–- which can easily cost a couple over $100–- participating restaurants (the brave eight were C&O, Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, Horse & Hound, Cassis, l’©toile, Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head, The Melting Pot, and the Boat House) were slammed. Indeed, many of the restaurants were booked before the week began, prompting Fossett's and Bel Rio to extend the $25 deal for a second week. And Bel Rio leapt into the fray as an unofficial participant.

So what did we learn? While the $25 deal made it difficult for restaurants to turn a big profit on the meal, local print and TV media picked up the story, and the marketing power reached all the way to D.C. and Maryland.

For our second Restaurant Week January 25 through 31, 18 restaurants have signed up, and we’re expecting it to be just as popular. Think of it as a stimulus package to promote gastronomy in the region.

Also this year, a restaurant smoking ban went into effect December 1, with Governor Tim Kaine kicking off the new legislation at Hamiltons’ at First & Main on the Downtown Mall, one of only three restaurants in Virginia where Kaine spoke that day. Next door, Miller’s had to prohibit smoking at the bar for the first time in 30 years, but not for long.

That’s because smoking hasn’t actually been banned in restaurants; the old rules were just flipped around. It used to be restaurants had non-smoking sections, now they’re required to have “separately ventilated” smoking sections. Miller’s simply plans to retrofit the second floor to keep smoke out so they can allow smoking downstairs as always. Over at the C&O, too, things won’t be changing that much, as their downstairs bar and restaurant qualifies as a separately ventilated area. Of course, other restaurants aren’t as easily retrofitted, such as the Blue Light Grill and Mas, but they have outdoor patios. And that’s the biggest change we’re likely to notice about the new law–- more people smoking al fresco (if that's not an oxymoron).

dish-cassis-outsideFoodies crowd the patio at Cassis during the Hook's first Restaurant Week in July.

Looking back, other notable food news deserves mention, such as the deer hunting classes for locavores started by Jackson Landers, the opening of the Local Food Hub, which distributes and markets locally grown food, and the tragic death of beloved farmer and local food activist Kathryn Russell, who died in an October 22 car accident.

There were also record sales at the Charlottesville City Market. Then there was Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s trip to Jinx's Pits-Top on his bicycle, the opening of Albemarle CiderWorks, one of only two places in Virginia producing hard cider, the controversy over the Southern Crescent restaurant coming to Belmont, the X Lounge’s refusal (and subsequent apology) to let a man wearing a turban in the door under its dress code, Taste of China bringing with it a famous chef, Mockingbird rising from the ashes, and CEO Bob Parsons eating a motorcycle cake with race car driver Danica Patrick.

There was also the conviction of the Wood Grill murderer, the mention of our budding micro-beer trail in the Washington Post, Chipotle now getting 100 percent of their pork from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, the closing of Martha's Caf© after 31 years, Gearharts Fine Chocolates expanding to Richmond, Feast! selling Barackwurst around inauguration time, the third-annual Artini party in the Ix building, the surprising success of Retail Relay, and the tainted peanut scare, which had embattled Peanut Corp. of America owner and Lynchburg area resident Stewart Parnell pleading the Fifth after emails showed he ordered infected products shipped and complained that the lab tests to check for contamination were “costing us huge $$$$$$.”

Ah, there’s never a dull moment in our little local food world, and Dish looks forward to serving up the news in 2010. Tip included.

2009 openings: Cinema Taco, The Southern, Mockingbird, Camino, Taste of China, La Joya, Rise Pizzaworks, Tavola, Trinity, L’s Burrito & Juice Company, What Up Dog, Last Call Dogs, WahooRidge Company, Cantina, Yum Yum Shop, Balkan Bakery Caf©, Ivy Road Shenandoah Joe’s, 12th Street Taphouse, Tara Thai, Simeon Market, The Cavalier Diner, Mudhouse Crozet, Ariana, Ni Hao Caf©, Sushi Love, Green House Coffee, Da Luca Caf© & Wine Bar, The Tea House, Kinney & Lee's BBQ and Catering, Trailside Coffee.

2009 closings: Il Cane Pazzo, Just Curry, Martha’s Caf©, University Grill, Crush Wine Shop, Uncle Charlie’s, Gravity Lounge, Casella's, Sam’s Kitchen, Wild Greens, Pizza Boli, Ivy Road Java Java, Pacino's Deli & Catering, Sublime All-Natural Food & Juice Bar, Si Tapas, Rita's, Amigos on 5th Street.


Food at restaurants got better in 2009? Most of the places stink for what they charge. I don't eat a lot, because generally I can make it better, healthier, and cheaper. I had like, two good meals in 2009 at restaurants, and they were not the most expensive, by any means.


The C&O's downstairs qualifies as a "separately ventilated" space...

actually, fossett's 2nd restaurant week was $35. and the boat house wasn't exactly "brave" as it waited until it had heard how many reservations l'etoile et al. had before it joined.

dave - I thought it was illegal in VA; starting Dec 1st?
Does C&O have private club status?

As long as The Aberdeen Barn and Riverside never go out of business, I am good to go! :)

yeah, C&O and Millers... total tobacco death merchants. Outskits guy might need to watch out for all that restaurant salt and fat since he eats out so much, that'll kill him too. Drama queen...

I eat out 15-18 times each week. I'll never spend a dime at C&O or Miller's since they continue to allow unnecessary deaths due to smoking. I hope others feel the same way and help to drive them out of business.

As I recall Crush Wine Shop was a wine shop - not a restaurant.

AMIGOS mexican restaurant is closed on 5# street

I'm disappointed about the C&O's decision. I love the bar, but I can't stand the smoke, especially if I'm eating. Oh well, I suspect they'll survive without me.

I should have mentioned that the C&O, while they still allow smoking downstairs, don't allow it until dinner is over. And thanks for reminding me about Amigos...

Dave McNair

For crying out loud "outskirts guy"... Just eat in a different section of the restaurant.