Tiny flat: Downtown crèperie takes shaperie

Though recipes for crèpes date back to the 14th century, crèperies­ restaurants specializing in these portable, versatile, sweet, and savory French pancakes­ emerged only about a hundred years ago. A sign of their broad appeal (crèpes are fast, cheap, delicious, and require no flatware), creperies can now be found all over France and much of the rest of the world.

I've enjoyed crèpes in the shadow of the cathedral of Chartres, in a café on a quiet street in the Oltrarno district of Florence, under a yellow umbrella at the Los Angeles Farmer's Market, and even in a remote fishing village in the Dominican Republic. Soon, I will be able to add my hometown to this list.

Come September, a humble little brick building behind the Jefferson Theater on Water Street will begin a new life as The Flat, Charlottesville's first full-time crepe stand. While the property belongs to The Hook's editor, the tiny restaurant is the brainchild of 26-year-old Lauren McRaven, The Flat was inspired by a 2003 trip to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland with LiveArts (Lauren's sister is director/actor Amanda McRaven).

"There were crèpe stands on every corner in Edinburgh, and many were open 'til 3am," she says. "I've had the idea in my mind ever since."

McRaven returned to Charlottesville this year to "re-group" after eight years away. Her job with a youth ministry in Camden, New Jersey ended in May, which freed her up to become the new crèpe-mistress of Charlottesville. Though McRaven says she originally conceived The Flat as a coffeehouse (the idea for the name came from the European word for "apartment"), she admits it works just as well­ perhaps better– as the name of a crepe stand.

In Medieval France, crepes were connected with the Christian holidays Candlemas and Shrove Tuesday and were symbolic of good fortune and family life. Farmers also offered crèpes to their landowners as a symbol of allegiance.

The tiny two-story building had been used as part of an apartment for years. McRaven will need to make several changes to the structure­ she'll install a petite commercial kitchen, make some noticeable changes to the roof, convert the Water Street window into a take-out opening, and build a brick patio in front.

The downtown Board of Architectural Review approved her plan Tuesday, August 16, and McRaven expects to complete renovations by mid-September. The daughter of Charles McRaven, a stone and ancient building expert, Lauren will do most of the work herself.

"From working with my dad, I can do­ or figure out how to do– just about everything," she says.

The Flat will serve up a variety of sweet and savory crèpes, ranging from the simple (lemon juice and sugar, or cheddar cheese and onions) to the more complex or filling (black forest ham and brie, salmon and cream cheese, fresh fruit with vanilla yogurt). Since it's a take-out stand, made-to-order crèpes will be served either folded and ready-to-eat in parchment paper, or in special take-out containers.

McRaven aims to find the best coffee-roaster she can, and also plans to offer single origin (i.e. from one region) hot chocolates and Italian sodas. Cups made out of corn, and a composting and re-cycling program belie her "green" attitude. She also hopes to continue her support of area youths by hiring high school students to both work and study at The Flat.

Since a LiveArts theater trip inspired her little crèperie, it's only natural that McRaven plans to stay open late enough to give theater-goers something to nibble on after the show.

This little chunk o' brick may soon be the only crèperie in town.