Crowded out: Caffe meets Royale end

Coffee lovers on The Corner just lost one of their favorite low-key haunts. Having occupied a prime piece of real estate in the gorgeous and historic Chancellor Building for over six years, Espresso Royale Caffé closed its doors last Saturday, April 12.

Dozens of unharried regulars showed up to say farewell and enjoy the sunshine and limited offerings on the pleasant, atmospheric patio. The interior– which underwent a major and extremely costly renovation a few years ago– was, as one might expect, much less cheery: Stripped bare walls, tired couches, and a cold brick oven greeted the faithful.

An indication of how much this spot will be missed, the empty pastry case was covered with good-bye notes ranging in tone from beholden– "Thank you for being here for me during some emotionally trying phases of medical school. I'll miss you!" to plaintive– "Why? Why? This was my second home– now where will I go?" to downright mad– "No more C-ville ERC– what the crap?"

Dish went directly to the source.

Headquartered in Michigan, the relatively small (compared to Starbucks!) 15-year-old Espresso Caffé Corporation owns and operates 21 cafés in college towns and urban areas ranging from Ann Arbor to Boston to Athens, Georgia.

Although larger than most and the only one ever to offer a make-your-own-pizza bar, the Charlottesville location couldn't hold its own on the restaurant and café-dense Corner.

"When we opened, we were the only ones on the Corner. Then came Starbucks and Greenberry's, and we took a killing," says Lisa Tuveson, vp and director of company ops. She forgot to mention Higher Grounds, which has espresso bars in the hospital and at Plan 9 on The Corner.

Tuveson also cites the recent proliferation of neighborhood eateries as a reason for the marginal success of the pizza bar prototype, which has since been nixed. But according to founder and president Marcus Goller, the morning is to blame.

"Most of our cafés do 50 percent of their business by 1pm. In Charlottesville, it was more like 10 percent– we did most of our business in the afternoon and evening," Goller says. He also cites the relative lack of foot traffic in that specific Corner block as a cause for closure.

Time to move on.

"We're really proud of our Charlottesville staff and our loyal customers. It just wasn't the right location for us. So we've decided to focus on what we do best (coffee) and let someone else take the space," Goller explains.

The comapany has the lease for another year and hopes to sublet soon. Restaurant? Nightclub? We'll keep you posted.

 

ITALIAN ZEST

Water Street's looking brighter than ever this week, thanks to a little Italian zest. La Cucina, the new Italian trattoria owned by the father and son team of Ugo and Francesco Benincasa, opened on Monday, April 14, in the lemon yellow building next to Metro.

"We thought the facade could use some cheering up," Francesco told Dish last week, adding, "It was kind of dark and hidden before."

Nothing like a fresh coat of giallo napoletano (neapolitan yellow) to enhance a restaurant's curb appeal. The peripheral spritz made us do a drive-by double-take a few weeks ago– which is, of course, just what the new owners were intending.

As for the evolving interior of the restaurant, new Mediterranean accents include wine barrels, miniature lemon and olive trees, and a growing collection of family mementos. Like a pair of fine leather shoes, a trattoria only gets better with time.

Though you can order anything and everything on La Cucina's lunch and dinner menu this week– from bruschetta (pronounced bru-skett-a) to pesto grilled scallops– you'll have to wait a bit longer for Chianti and Pinot Grigio. It'll be another week or so before the ABC is on. All the more reason to start with the food.

Buon appetito!