Qdobas: Tex-Mex comes to the Corner
If you've been to the Corner lately, you've surely spotted the freshly painted, canary yellow facade of the historic Chancellor's drug store building- former home of Espresso Royale Caffé.
Dish readers and Corner regulars will remember that the generally successful coffee (and pizza) chain flew the coop last spring, citing sluggish morning business as the primary reason. A new lease was signed back in June by the owners of Qdoba Mexican Grill, a Tex-Mex fast-casual franchise that burst onto the scene in Colorado in 1995 and is currently spreading across Virginia faster than a Looney Tunes twister.
Set to open on November 21, the Charlottesville location is just one of 21 Qdobas planned for our state. "We just opened our Harrisonburg location a few months ago, and it's doing very well. I think that Charlottesville is a great city to have a restaurant in," says Frasier Schaufele, one of the managing owners.
He added that his group had their sights set on Barracks Road when they stumbled upon the vacant spot on the Corner. "This is by far the biggest space we've done," he says of the location, which will seat 120 in its front and rear dining sections.
The renovation hasn't been an easy one, according to contractor Kendle Smith of Richmond contractors EDC, who built the Harrisonburg Qdoba in a brand-new building. "It's been a... well, I guess you can't put that in print. Let's just say we had to put in all new heating, AC, and electric systems, and we upgraded the plumbing."
What remains undone is purely cosmetic- carpeting, ceramic tile, and a few more coats of yellow and cayenne-red paint.
If you're wondering what happened to Espresso Royale Caffé's Wood Stone pizza oven, you need look no further than Mona Lisa Pasta on Preston Avenue. Jim Winecoff, the owner and head chef of this pasta provisions shop, had for months been making gourmet pizzas– in addition to fresh pastas and sauces– in a small commercial oven (fitted with a pizza stone) when he heard of the Caffé's demise.
Apparently, his decision to buy the oven was a whole lot easier than the actual, physical transfer of the hot property from one location to the other- just a mile away. Since the extra-large oven couldn't fit through the doors, windows had to be cut out both at the Caffé and at Mona Lisa. In other words, the transfer was a royale pain in the you-know-what.
Was it worth it? Will the oven, which now sits regally in the center of Winecoff's ample, open kitchen, bring more of a smile to Mona Lisa than it did to the Corner pizzeria-café? The answer should come in a few weeks, once all the technical details (venting, protective screens) are complete. Since the shop's take-out gourmet pies already have a following, the future looks as rosy as a plump tomato.
The fact that Escafé and the historic (1908) building it occupies have been on the market for weeks hasn't seemed to hurt business. If anything, people seem to be flocking to the popular Downtown Mall eatery more than usual. The newly renovated restaurant swarmed with winged waiters and devilish diners on Halloween, and business on the previous weekend beat all records (except for graduation weekend).
"Our renovation/expansion has made the place a lot more efficient," owner Doug Smith tells Dish. Smith and co-owner (and chef) Sean Concannon plan to move to Portland, Oregon, for family health reasons as soon as they find a buyer- which could be very soon.
"The last thing we wanted to do was to leave Charlottesville and Escafé," Smith says. "It's our baby, and we hope the new owners will preserve the same spirit."
No need to worry about the recently opened (in May) Ristorante Al Dente above Escafé. The "elegant, but not uppity" Italian restaurant owned and operated by Joia and Karim Sellam enjoys a long-term lease and will not be affected by an eventual sale. The only changes diners will note are seasonal specials like pumpkin ravioli with a saffron cream sauce.
Qdoba on The Corner will open. They promise.<br>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO