Hey, Simpson: C&O's Dave's still at it
It would be all too easy– and a big loss for them– for a self-absorbed UVA student or an overly hip yuppie to miss the coolest little nook in Charlottesville.
The C&O is a local force of the sort that won't even make itself known until it comes flying out of nowhere and smacks you upside the head with its charm. Charlottesvillians and Wahoos alike have enjoyed the downtown restaurant's presence for almost three decades now, and owner Dave Simpson is honored to have been handed the torch.
Simpson is happy to relate how he started as a cook, worked his way up the ladder, and had established himself as the natural choice by the time founder Sandy McAdams decided to pull out in the 1980's.
"He had to find somebody he trusted, and I think that was one of my greatest honors," Simpson says.
It's one that he certainly has not taken lightly over the 20-some years he's been at the helm of the venerable Water Street watering hole. Initially, Simpson shared the burden (and pleasures) of ownership with partner Peter Scott, just as McAdams had done with Philip Stafford before them. "He and I were like a dog and a cat," Simpson says. "He was more mature than I was."
That's his elegant way of saying that they tangled more often than was healthy for either party– or for the restaurant. Eventually, the situation came to a head.
"He wanted to buy me out, and I wanted to buy him out, and we couldn't reach any sort of accord," says Simpson. Eventually a mutual friend arranged a negotiation session, and shortly thereafter Scott was on his way to San Francisco.
What explains the upscale eatery and bar's runaway success? Simpson responds without hesitation. "Clearly, it's the people who have inhabited it. Specifically, it has been their thick skins and long fuses.
"The overwhelming characteristic that I think makes it successful is forgiveness," he continues, speaking of patrons and staff alike. "I've always thought of the C&O as the home of the second chance. We've had plenty of chances to fall apart, and we've decided not to."
His staff seems to agree. He currently has about 10 employees who have chosen to hang around for a decade or more. The customers are similarly clingy, and business is booming as a result.
"Another thing that's great about the C&O is that we have such a huge history and have been so much a part of people's lives," says Simpson. "Guys who stayed here 'till dawn and drank like idiots when they were younger are now calling us up to cater their kids' weddings."
Now, having paid his dues, Simpson is content to sit back and watch his baby thrive on its own. He no longer has to deal with the insane schedules of his youth.
Of the hours he's keeping these days, Simpson says, "They're a little more focused now, and there are probably fewer of them." In addition, he's cut back severely on his kitchen time, instead letting head chef Thomas Bowles run the tight culinary ship.
"I was reluctant to turn over the reins to Thomas, but I was painfully aware of how good everybody was and how I was just getting in the way," he admits. Now he mans the accounting books instead of the spatulas, and does a considerably better job of it than he did when he first bought the business.
"At the end of the night," he recalls, "we would just throw all the money into a bag, and we never really knew where the money came from." Improving wacky financial practices like those has surely helped keep the C&O afloat, but Simpson still hasn't lost sight of his original mission.
"The more freedom you get, and the more money you stack up, the less you want it," he says. And in a sense, it's still McAdams' mission that drives them.
"Sandy and Philip had a vision for the place, and it's been something to strive for, to keep that going," says Simpson. If his repeat customers and their decades of loyal patronage are any indication, he's not doing half bad.
Why here? I grew up here. I was born at Martha Jefferson Hospital.
Worst thing about living here? A friend of mine said this about 10 years ago, and I'd have to agree with him: There isn't anywhere to get any good hash browns.
Favorite hangout? The C&O. I don't do much hanging out.
Most overrated virtue? Pride
People would be surprised to know? I'm frightfully shy.
What would you change about yourself? I'd be smarter.
Proudest accomplishment? Being able to keep my herd together here at the C&O and being able to keep the thing that Sandy and Phil started 30 years ago focused
People find most annoying about you? My ambition
Whom do you admire? Jane Foster and Charlie Gleason, both parents of kids I grew up with.
Favorite book? The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Subject that causes you to rant? The 2000 presidential election
Biggest 21st century thrill? Medicine, in particular laparoscopic surgery, which I have been the beneficiary of on several occasions
Biggest 21st century creep-out? There are an awful lot of mean people.
What do you drive? A Volvo station wagon– and I drive a lot of catering vans.
In your car CD player right now? The Summer Side of Life by Gordon Lightfoot
Next journey? New York in January
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I hit a policeman once (with my car).
Regret? Not being able to see my nephews, Ethan and Blake
Favorite comfort food? Macaroni and cheese
Always in your refrigerator? Eggs. We keep chickens at my house, so there's always a million eggs.
Must-see TV? I scarcely ever watch a minute of TV. Every time I turn it on, I just fall asleep.
Favorite cartoon? Tom and Jerry
Describe a perfect day. Traveling on a train with a bunch of friends
Walter Mitty fantasy? To go through a day seeing the world through [photographer] Tom Cogill's eyes
Who'd play you in the movie? Harvey Keitel
Most embarrassing moment? I've had a lot of them.
Best advice you ever got? To follow a path with heart
Favorite bumper sticker? "John Kerry for President"
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO #Read more on: Dave Simpson