FOOD- THE DISH- Labor of Love: Restaurants brace themselves for '09
Dish Photo of the Year: Bel Rio owners Jim Baldi, Dave Simpson, and Gareth Weldon pose like rock stars in front of their Belmont eatery and night club, which opened in December.
FILE PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Given the state of the economy, one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2008 Year in Food was how many brave folks decided to take the plunge and open a restaurant or some type of eatery. Still, the local restaurant world is bracing itself for 2009, which appears to be shaping up to be a rough one economically.
But as one local restaurateur pointed out this year, following the auctioning off of OXO on Water Street, which went for a mere $3,000 after the owners ran into some financial problems, starting a restaurant isn't necessarily all about the Benjamins.
"Everybody thinks you get rich in the restaurant business, but you don't," said Hot Cake's Keith Rosenfeld, who had hoped to score some catering equipment at the auction. "It's often more a labor of love and a way to have a job that let's you stay in Charlottesville."
But Rosenfeld said it had become a tougher playing field.
"We used to have very few good restaurants," he said. "... but now we have many, plus tons of chains. In my opinion, Charlottesville has been over-restauranted for some time, and I'm afraid we may see more of these auctions before the economy turns around."
So far, there hasn't been a rash of auctions, though Ponderosa's equipment was auctioned off soon after Rosenfeld's comments, but the economy hasn't turned around yet either.
But enough of this gloomy talk! On to the Dish stories of the year...
Given how strong the local food movement has become in 2008, it's only fitting that our own Chipotle Mexican Grill in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, one of 700 stores nationwide, became the first chain restaurant to use 100 percent locally produced meat. Working with Polyface Farm in Swoope (about 48 miles away), which has been supplying fresh ingredients to local restaurants for several years, Polyface is supplying the 350 pounds of pork that are gobbled up in the Charlottesville store everyday.
The Eater eats
We knew that the debut of our new restaurant review column, The Eater, would stir things up (the Post has called us "insanely committed foodies," after all)– we just didn't realize it would happen so fast and with such fury.
Our first review from Ned Oldham (Sarah Jacobson and Kate Malay would join the stable later), of Maya, was bombarded with comments on the Hook's website, both good and bad. A local website even took the time to track down Oldham's bio and post his photo in attempt to warn restaurant owners. Sheesh, you'd think we'd hired an assassin.
Finally, a very angry someone claiming to be associated with Maya stormed into the Hook's editorial office, insisted that the restaurant uses fresh whipped cream (Oldham questioned that), cursed us, and left.
Conclusion: we are insanely committed foodies!
For many restaurants on the Downtown Mall– believe it or not, there are 60 restaurants and eateries on or around the Mall– the $7.5 million Mall re-bricking project that is now underway was a source of anxiety during 2008, especially for those restaurants with outdoor patios, who will temporarily loose those spaces while the bricks are replaced.
Late in the planning stage, restaurants like Miller's, Sal's, and Rapture dodged a bullet when they had the sense to speak out against a proposal to close down all patio spaces until the project was finished in May, and then shrink them all to 700 square feet.
"I agree with those merchants who say that's ridiculous and that's been scrapped," said Charlottesville mayor Dave Norris after hearing their complaints. " Once your portion of the Mall is finished, and once café season is open you can have your cafés."
As an added measure, Norris said the city was waiving all café fees for the 2009 season.
"We're eliminating it just to ease the load merchants are facing," he said.
Food mag fight!
A local food publication called Flavor magazine arrived this year, only to be sued by a publishing company called Edible Communities Inc., which has plans to start a new publication here in January called Edible Blue Ridge.
The company accused Flavor's publisher, Melissa Harris, of stealing their "trade dress" after she briefly entertained the idea of working with the company. But Harris denied the charges, said the company knew she was starting her own magazine, and claims they were merely trying to "take her out." Still, the suit cost Harris thousands, as she chose to settle rather than fight the big company in court.
However, veteran journalist Steve Russell, who will be Edible Blue Ridge's publisher, takes issue with Harris' claims, believing she did in fact appropriate much from Edible's concept and that the company was simply protecting its interests.
But Edible wasn't finishing fighting for what it considers its intellectual property. In December, the company went after blogger Jenee Libby, who launched a site called Edible Cville a while back, demanding that she change the name of her blog.
"We'll see what happens...I'm still reeling that a lil' ol' blog with seven subscribers would garner such attention," Libby told the Hook.
Outback Lodge a winner
Just when Outback Lodge owner Terry Martin thought everything he had worked for had been lost, Lady Luck intervened.
"I was the brokest I've ever been," Martin told the Hook. He was also reeling from bad publicity and a whole lot of police attention stemming from a November 2007 shooting in his parking lot after a hip-hop event at his new downstairs dance hall. The phone had been cut off. He couldn't pay to renew his liquor license, and the $15,000 he'd recently spent renovating the Outback Lodge appeared wasted, as he was drowning in debt.
Then he bought a lottery ticket at the Shell station down the road, and it turned out to be a $100,000 winner. And he immediately put the money back into the business, prompting many to wonder why he didn't just pocket the cash and walk away.
"It was meant to be," said Martin of the Outback. "It's been here 17 years, and we have a better music line up than a lot of places. It's known nationally, and rock musicians say, ‘Finally, a real rock club.'"
The Tavern gets tested
The local restaurant scene got a wake-up call when The Tavern, the long-lived breakfast joint on Emmet Street where "students, tourists, and townpeople" meet, became the place where the salmonella bacterium met with a long history of health code violations.
Health inspection records showed that over 60 food handling and preparation violations had been served to The Tavern since January 2003, including 13 during a single inspection in 2007. Dish then took the opportunity to look through the inspection records, which are available online, and we were shocked to see that The Tavern wasn't the only restaurant guilty of multiple violations.
"We had a bad history of violations, no question," Tavern owner Shelly Gordon told Dish. "We've lost business, our reputation has been hurt, and frankly I'm embarrassed by it, but we hope to regain the public's trust."
Bel Rio (Belmont)
Calvino Cafe (West Main Market)
Asian Specialty (Water Street)
Monticello Cafe (Monticello visitor center)
Winky's (Angus Road)
Boylan Heights (The Corner)
Topeka's Steakhouse N' Saloon (Pantops)
Cappellino's Crazy Cakes (Downtown Mall)
The Local (Belmont)
High Tide Burrito (Forest Lakes)
Coffee on the Corner (The Corner)
Para Coffee (The Corner)
Just Curry (on The Corner and in Transit Center)
ZamZam Kabob (Route 29 North)
Si Tapas (West Main)
Pesto Mediterranean Grill (Crozet)
Al Hamraa (the Ix building)
Olivaté (Albemarle Square)
Guadalajara (location #4 on Pantops)
La Michoacana Deli (High Street)
Nicola's Veggies (Downtown Mall)
The Box (Downtown Mall)
Ventana (Downtown Mall)
Devil's Backbone Brewery (Nelson County)
The Red Hen (Lexington)
Just Java (Lake Monticello)
Crozet Coffee Bar (Crozet)
Carpe Donut (all around town)
Great Scott's Gourmet Popcorn (250 West)
Rita's (The Corner)
The Upstairs (Downtown Mall)
Aroma's (Barracks Road)
Boylan Heights (The Corner)
Savour (Route 29)
Arch's Frozen Yogurt on Emmet Street (Route 29)
Milano (South Street)
Steak-Out Char-Broiled Delivery (Route 29)
Arirang Restaurant (Fontaine Avenue)
New China (Crozet)
Tropical Smoothie Café (Rio Shopping Center)
The Boathouse (Route 29)
El Dorado (Preston Avenue)
Brasserie Montiel (Commonwealth Drive)
Orbit Billiards (The Corner)
Bohème (Market Street)
Cafe Lajoi (Forest Lakes)
Zandi's (Route 29 North)
Mesob (The Corner)
Saxx Jazz Club (Belmont)
Fat Daddy's (Albemarle Square)
Brix Marketplace (Route 53)
OXO (Water Street)
Ludwig's Restaurant & Lounge (Fontaine Avenue)
Mama Mia (Preston Avenue)
Spry's BBQ (West Main)
Dahatchi (Albemarle Square)
Casella's (Emmet Street)
Maverick (Route 29)
Big Jim's (Angus Road)
Kiki Café and Bar (Downtown Mall)
Pig Daddy's BBQ (Avon Street)