Blast off: Atomic Burrito takes on the night

Now that Live Arts and R2, Rapture's rapturous new dance club, are settled into their chic new digs, restaurants new and not-so-new are adapting to the increasingly nocturnal demands of Downtown Mall diners.

One place that's likely to satisfy late-night– as well as afternoon– cravings with a bang is the fun and funky new Atomic Burrito, a retro-style little taco and burrito bar (taqueria in Spanish) that just opened in the former Liquid spot on Second Street flanking the new City Center for Contemporary Arts (C3A).

Owner Andrew Vaughan, partnering this time with good friend Josh Yowell, should feel at home in this particular orbit of small, innovative, and potentially volatile ventures. A pioneer in the expanding world of Charlottesville's West Coast-inspired businesses (i.e. William Trager's Higher Grounds), Vaughan started the Java Hut after living in Seattle, and later opened Orbit and, with managing partner Mike Rodi, Rapture.

Vaughan was also a part-owner of Liquid, the vegetarian-smoothie bar that closed last fall for reasons which included construction at C3A and a menu that appealed primarily to day-time diners. Though it left a definite void, the closure of Liquid actually allowed Vaughan to realize a business idea that's been teasing him for a very long time (i.e. pre-Orbit): a taqueria that can wrap (not to mention rap) into the wee hours.

"I discovered the taqueria concept out in California," says Vaughan, "and thought it would be perfect for Charlottesville's casual dining and late-night scene." A place for a quick bite or a long, drink-spiked evening with friends– Atomic Burrito features, of course, burritos and frozen drinks. The creative eats, which also include tacos, quesadillas, and salads– are ordered in cafeteria or assembly-line fashion (think Q'Doba).

First choose your tortilla (white or whole-grain), then your rice (white or coconut whole-grain), then your beans (pinto, black), your filling (grilled chicken, veggie, marinated steak, braised pork) and... well, you get the idea. The extensive menu of "after-dark smoothies" includes fresh-fruit frozen margaritas, daquiris, and piña coladas.

Ordering is made fun thanks to carpenter-designer Brandon Copeland's curvaceous silver-topped bar, papered in gray, black, and red polka-dots– all part of the retro, sedated Jetsons scheme Copeland designed with Vaughan and Yowell.

As for the other innovations, Atomic will offer burrito delivery, live music, and DJs, a small TV for game day, and they may even sell six-packs of (good!) beer for those who want to take the party home. Expect eats until 2 or maybe even 3am Thursday-Saturday.


Late night @ Blue Light– sushi

 If you're more in the mood for Asian than Mexican eats, then the Blue Light Grill could be your ticket to an after-theater or pre-disco bite. About a month ago, this chic spot introduced a late-night sushi menu from 10:30-1am, Thursday-Saturday. Noticing the scarce after-11 offerings downtown, Executive Chef Reed Anderson figured he couldn't lose with a simple, create-your-own sushi menu catering to both theater and cocktail crowds. The response, he tells me, has been "overwhelming."

"People love the chance to try new flavors, and they're really having fun with it," he says.

Wild king salmon, cucumber, and chèvre roll, anyone? Burgers, crab cakes, fried calamari, and fries also work overtime at Blue Light late-night.


Al Dente's early-bird special

 All this talk of creative late-nights can also come early. The "elegant but not uppity" Ristorante Al Dente (above Escafé), for instance, is now offering a $19 prix fixe dinner menu for those who prefer to eat before a play or movie.

For about the same price as a few buckets of popcorn, you can enjoy an entire meal: antipasto, salad, pasta or meat/fish course, dessert and coffee. Your digestion– and fellow audience members– will thank you!

Keep your eyes and appetites out for more signs of the restaurant (r)evolution!

Owner of Atomic Burrito, Andrew Vaughan