Thank you: 10 reasons to thank the foodie gods

MAS - This tapas bar started 2003 off with a bite-size bang when it opened in January-­ and in downtown Belmont, no less. Formerly the home of Hog Heaven (now flourishing in Ruckersville), this historic brick building at the fork of Hinton Avenue and Monticello Road helped inaugurate the new industrial-chic look now running rampant in Charlottesville– exposed everything, concrete bar, custom lighting, and upholstery. Hot since day one– thanks to the unique locale and the talent of Tomas Rahal and original breadmaker/sous chef Anthony Johnston– Mas has matured under the ownership of Coran Capshaw into one of Charlottesville's most lively and reliable gourmet gems.


909 WEST MAIN STREET ­ Asian Express and Big Mouth Pizza. We can thank Gabe Silverman for the meticulous restoration of this historic brick house on the once-starved block between Starr Hill and the Corner, now home to two innovative locally owned restaurants. Combining a sleek, clean, contemporary look with Chinese and Japanese cuisine is Asian Express, which debuted in March-­ much to the applause of both hospital workers and students. It took a little longer to fill Suite 102, but when Big Mouth Pizza finally opened on December 12 with its custom pies and sauces and vibrant decor, it was a perfect match. Living less than a mile from 909 W. Main, I'm thankful that when hunger strikes I now have a choice: seaweed salad and spicy tuna roll or a garlic-infused white pizza with shitake mushrooms and caramelized onions. And if I'm in a lazy mood, they'll bring dinner to my door.


MILAN - Call it good karma. When a trio of north India-natives in Lynchburg decided to open their second Milan restaurant in the humble gray building on Route 29 ­ a spot where former tenants Crystal's and Indochine had had a hard time– many were skeptical. Especially considering the constant traffic in that particular "block," and the proximity of the popular Maharaja. But the packed parking lot at lunchtime proves that excellent Indian cuisine and fine service can transform even a problematic location into a success story. Need more evidence? Talk to the dozens of Hindi-Urdu students at UVA who flock there on a regular basis.


THE GROUNDS CAFÉ ­ This was a big year for cafés. Balancing out closures like Blackstone's and Espresso Royale were newcomers Java Java and Mermaid Express (the latter newly located to Foods of all Nations). Given their location on Ivy Road, anyone could've predicted the success of these two new coffee- and-tea houses. But the real surprise is The Grounds Café, another small, locally owned café at Seminole Square. When they opened in July in the Caldo and Freddo spot, I wondered whether the Grounds' homemade focaccia sandwiches, baked goods, and Seattle-educatated coffees would find a market between Cici's Pizza's $3.99 buffet and Giant. But the last time I dropped by for lunch– for an enormous (half!) focaccia sandwich ($3) and a very Italian tasting macchiato coffee ($1), the tables were filled with giggling seniors, hungry shoppers, and studious students.


SLOW FOOD VIRGINIA - This grass roots movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s, crept into Charlottesville-Albemarle this fall, debuting in September with a tasting of Virginia wines and cuisine, and followed up with a well-attended artisanal cheese tasting at Barboursville Vineyards in October. Dedicated to preserving local flavors and farmers over everything fast and franchised, Slow Food reflects and supports the agricultural traditions and gourmet aspirations of our town, and will surely continue to spread its gospel of gastronomic pleasures in years to come.


FUEL, CO. - Gourmet gas stations are not new to Charlottesville. But Fuel Co., which opened on Market Street in the fall, is much more than that. Patricia Kluge's prototype for what could become a national franchise redefines the genre and takes it up a notch-­ or 20. Not just a hybrid convenience store (bottle of Coke or bottle of wine?), gas station, and café (French pastries, panini, cappuccini), Fuel, Co. also sports a stellar gourmet nouvelle americaine restaurant that offers more than a few good reasons to fill 'er up.


SOSO - Sammy's Snacks and The Baker's Palate. Bravely occupying the newly refurbished Gleason's Building in Charlottesville's new warehouse district SoSo (south of South Street) are two bakeries-­ one for dogs, the other for humans. Sammy's Snacks, which specializes in homemade doggie and kittie treats (many that humans can enjoy too), filled the first spot in July. The Baker's Palate gave downtown bread, pastry, and panini lovers a reason to cross the tracks in September. Since both companies began at the City Market, they prove that sometimes the best things start small.


Q'DOBA - Okay, it's a franchise, and it does feature a few TVs, but this quick-casual Tex-Mex grill is a welcome addition to the Corner dining scene. When Espresso Royale Caffè closed in March, the owners of a Q'doba in Harrisonburg were quick and confident enough to fill the empty cup with their proven restaurant recipe. With its yellow facade, bright airy interior, quick assembly-line service, and affordable prices, Q'doba makes it clear that UVA students prefer beer, taco salads, and three-cheese nachos to morning roasts. I admit I'm already addicted to the Pesto Poblano Burrito, which for around $5 is big enough to feed an entire family­ or maybe one hungry football fan.


ZOCALO ­ A 2003 latecomer (opened December 12), Zocalo was worth the wait. If Mas started the year with a bang, this Latin-inspired bar and restaurant is closing it on an equally upbeat urban note. You won't recognize former tenant Moondance (closed June 14) in the vast, warehouse-like space that's been innovatively designed (polished concrete bar, Mexican ceramic bathroom sinks) and features a menu with flavors as seductive as the tango. Zocalo has revitalized a tired Central Place and given new life to the heart of the Downtown Mall.


METRO - The makeover of Métropolitain was revealed at the end of 2002, but what many may not realize is that it was reborn not only as Metro, but as an Italian restaurant, competing with newcomers La Cucina and Al Dente. Owners Vincent Derquenne and Tim Burgess deserve credit for having the creativity and savoir faire to transform a decade-old grand-dame into a less formal, slightly more affordable eatery. They even make their own tagliatelle and fresh mozzarella. Like the others on this list, Metro seems to have a feel for what Charlottesville craves now-­ and is more than prepared to deliver.