Keaveny's dream: Belmont welcomes Tavola
After years spent managing Coran Capshaw’s restaurant group, Micheal Keaveny appears to have stumbled upon a concept foodies have been hungering for. Since opening Tavola on July 16, his new Italian eatery in the old Crush Wine Shop space in Downtown Belmont, the chef-owner has barely had a moment's rest.
"Last week, there was an hour wait every night," he says, clearly taken aback by how busy he's been from the minute he opened his doors. "Also, we're already getting second- and third-time customers. It has really exceeded my expectations."
Indeed, on a recent Friday night, Dish had to wait over an hour for a table, as the small 37-seat restaurant was packed. We waited outside for a bit, then sat at a wall bar inside and had a few apps (shrimp kabobs and mussels) and a glass of wine. In the back of the room, Keaveny, his wrist bandaged from a serious accident with a paring knife the day before, was laboring hard in the open kitchen space with his sous chef Travis Hawthorne.
"Michael is an extraordinary chef," says Megan Headley, Tavola's Italian wine expert, reminding Dish that the former Capshaw manager is actually a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with years of cooking experience, "but he just wants to create simple, rustic, hearty Italian food, just like he'd make at home. He's very excited to be back in the kitchen."
It appears his excitement is infectious. Dish overheard a half-dozen people exclaiming out-loud how much they liked the food, and one couple came up to our table and declared it was the best meal they'd ever had in Charlottesville.
Of course, there were a few negatives. Our apps were first given to someone else, a few of the pancetta-wrapped shrimp apps were singed, and the place could definitely use a bench or something out front, but for a restaurant that had only been open for a few weeks, there were remarkably few hiccups. In fact, Tavola's transition into the Belmont scene has been so smooth that you get the feeling it has always been there.
During a break, Keaveny stopped by and mentioned that his inspiration for the place had been those storefront restaurants you see in Brooklyn, one after another as you're walking down the street, where you can peer in and check out the atmosphere.
Indeed, Downtown Belmont, already home to Bel Rio, The Local, La Taza, and Mas, has turned into a little Brooklyn of sorts, where strolling foodies can check out dining scenes like displays in shop windows.
As Headley mentions, Tavola also hopes to be a wine lover's destination. On Monday nights through September, Headley, the former general manager of enoteca, is offering 2-hour classes highlighting five Italian old-world wines paired with small plates from the Tavola kitchen.
"It's a great environment for people to really learn," says Headley, "and to savor wine and food together, without it having to be a scary or intimidating thing."
Keaveny says he's also trying to put a particular emphasis on service, on what he calls “passion and hospitality," so folks feel special every time they visit.
"Recently, I hired a waitress who had no experience, over many others who had a lot of experience," he says, "simply because she had such a great warmth about her."
As we ate our entrees, a delicious capellini gamberi "raucci" (sauteed shrimp, tomatoes, capers, gorgonzola-garlic butter) and a nicely cooked bistecca alla griglia (grilled prime sirloin strip, roasted Yukon gold potatoes, arugula, montepulciano-balsamic reduction), Keaveny and Hawthorne worked just a few feet away in the open kitchen, preparing the last of the night's meals, as the dinner crowd behind us began to break up and mingle.
Despite the crowd, and the pressure the staff was under, the space felt extraordinarily comfortable, like you'd just showed up at a large dinner party. At one point, the bartender dropped a tray of glasses, shattering a few, but it barely registered a nod from anyone.
"I was worried that the space was going to be too cramped," says Keaveny, " but it has worked out real well. This was definitely by design. I wanted to create a place that I would want to go to, a place where you feel like family when you go there."