DISH- Bistro maestro: Uncork the Boar's Head's best-kept secret

Obviously, Dish isn't very good about keeping secrets. But we have to admit we were tempted to keep this one to ourselves. In fact, it's not something the Boar's Head Inn's executive chef, Doug Knopp has promoted too heavily.

"It's our favorite little secret," says Knopp, who took over the Inn's kitchens in September 2004. About six months later, Knopp and his staff launched Bistro 1834 in the bar adjacent to the upscale Old Mill Room.

"The bistro is more casual than the Old Mill Room," says Knopp. "You can go ahead and bring the kids or drop in for a late-night dinner. It's a chance for me to serve some of my favorite things from over the years."

That would include a peanut soup, a delicately crisp, golden fish and chips, and a meatloaf that one recent customer called "the best I've ever had."

One of the more intriguing facets of the Bistro is that it's open late at night, until around 10 or 11pm, although Knopp says he has served even later if someone walks in hungry. Of course, it helps if you're a TV comedienne who recently taped a Bravo! broadcast at the Paramount Theater.

"Kathy Griffin walked in here about midnight," says Knopp. "So we whipped her up something good to eat."

Add to that the above-average professionalism of the Boar's Head's wait staff, manager Michael Beck's instinct for wine, the relaxed yet elegant setting, and you have a combination that's hard to find in Charlottesville.

Originally from Vancouver, Knopp worked at the Four Seasons in Toronto before moving to Nevis, West Indies to help start up another Four Seasons. After five years in the islands, and one bad hurricane, Knopp moved to Houston and then to St. Louis to work for Westin Hotels. That's when a headhunter for the Boar's Head came knocking.

"I wasn't looking to move," says Knopp. "But they invited us to Charlottesville. Still, I just thought, 'Great, a free weekend at a nice resort in Virginia.'"

Ah, how many of us thought we were coming to Charlottesville for just a visit? Sure enough, after a weekend and a look at the Boar's Head operation, Knopp was hooked. "I really liked the Boar's Head's commitment to the old premiums of luxury," says Knopp. "They really have a first-class operation here."

Knopp's interest in food, from the farm to the table, shows his commitment to the Slow Food Movement. An international association founded in the mid-'80s, Slow Food is an effort to counteract corporate food production by promoting biodiversity in our food supply, preserving traditional wine and food culture, and connecting consumers with ecologically responsible food producers.

Speaking as excitedly about where his food comes from as about his peanut soup, Knopp berates corporate chicken plants that use steroids and extols the virtues of local organic farmers like Joel Salitin at Polyface Farms near Staunton. In particular, he applauds Salitin's method of moving his spacious chicken pens around his farm at intervals to keep the birds from eating their own feces (which is often the case, even at so-called "free range" chicken farms, according to Knopp), producing what's referred to as "salad bar chicken."

Although Knopp doesn't get all his meat and produce from farms like Salitin's (the Boar's Head restaurants have too many people to feed), he does have a unique relationship with them. "We just tell them, 'Whatever you have, whatever's in season, we'll buy it,'" he says.

Oh, Knopp has one other secret to share: the Boar's Head has a lunch buffet that's open to the public.

In other, less secretive news...

The Winter Olympics might be over, but don't think you can't still support winter sports! On March 26, Henry's Restaurant on the Downtown Mall will be hosting a dessert-tasting event to raise money for 16- and 13-year-old Ryan and Miriam Edwards, Charlottesville's only pairs ice skating team. The two recently placed 9th in the nation at the 2006 South Atlantic Pairs Championship; they hope to compete in the US Figure Skating Championships in Spokane in January 2007.

Training for such an event isn't cheap, and the folks at Henry's are hoping people will come out and support the brother-sister duo. Drop by Henry's or call 434-295-7550 for more information.

The secret is out: the Boar's Head's Bistro 1834 offers casual elegance at reasonable prices– not to mention a killer meatloaf!