Come spring, owners of restaurants with outdoor patios pray for balmy evenings to help bump up sales. But on Saturday night, April 30, wet weather was a blessing for Coran Capshaw's Belmont eatery, Mas.
At around 1:30am Sunday morning, a black Porsche driven by 24-year-old Jennings Bryan Stephens IV plowed through the steel and concrete barrier surrounding the restaurant's patio.
Because of the cold and rain, the remaining patrons and staff witnessed the accident from the safety of inside the restaurant.
"I was in the office when I saw the lights and heard the first part of the crash," says Mas assistant manager Eliza Dilello.
When she went outside, Dilello saw a shocking scene: Stephens' 1984 Porsche 944 resting where, on warm nights, tables are filled with customers.
Things didn't get any better, says Dilello, who estimates Stephens had been driving at least 35 to 40mph in the 25mph zone before the crash.
"He proceeded to back out to try to flee," she says, "but then he lost control again and drove back up on the patio." While Dilello dialed 911, she says, Stephens removed his license plates and fled the scene in his oil-spewing damaged car with at least one flat tire.
Mas chef Tomas Rehal shudders when he thinks of what could have happened if patrons had been seated outside.
"I almost don't want to say," he says. At the very least, he says, "People would have had the living hell scared out of them, and they would have been hit by debris."
Despite the damage, the cost of which has not yet been estimated, Rehal is grateful for the strength of the patio barrier, which replaced the original cable fencing earlier this year.
"Miraculously," he says, "our steel-walled patio earned its keep." Though Stephens "bent over some pretty strong metal posts," says Rehal, the wall "absorbed the blow without losing the containment."
According to Charlottesville Police Sergeant David Jones, after Stephens made his escape from the scene, Sergeant Gary Dillon found him at the Carlton Avenue Trailer Park. With Dilello offering a positive ID, Dillon arrested him and charged him with DWI, failure to stop at the scene of an accident, and driving under a suspended license.
It isn't Stephens' first brush with the law. Charlottesville District Court records also show an assault and battery conviction in 2002. He could not be reached for comment.
Rehal hopes this accident will drive home the point that the streets surrounding Mas need traffic calming measures, and soon.
"We're like a jetty in the middle of the road," he says of the restaurant's location at the junction of Monticello Road, Hinton Avenue, Meridian Street, and Carlton Avenue. Rehal says there was a similar accident in the same spot several years before Mas opened, and both he and Dilello say drivers often speed through the area.
"In keeping with the city's increasing identity of Belmont as an up and coming area, we're asking them to spend the money to make it safer," says Rehal, who cites the nearby Virginia Industries for the Blind and Clark Elementary School as added reasons for drivers to slow down.
Jim Tolbert, the City's head of neighborhood planning, says the city
will be "glad to look at any traffic calming" in the area. But, he explains, "it just hasn't been raised with us at this point."
Rehal says that following the accident, he plans to make some specific requests.
"We think they need to put up some impenetrable pipe-like barriers [around the restaurant] to give us a primary shield of defense," he says. And he suggests a stop sign by the Belmont Market, just across Monticello Road.
"It might be a pain in the butt," says Rehal, "but this is a neighborhood."
Mas' patio will be closed while the steel wall is repaired, but Rehal expects outdoor business as usual in time for UVA's graduation weekend, May 20-22.
The steel and concrete barrier was bent flat by the force of the accident.