Charlottesville Breaking News

Simpson's folly? Nelsonian gets serious about Alaska race

After more than a generation as the unofficial ambassador of Nelson County, Russ Simpson suddenly finds himself unrecognizable. The proprietor of a popular roadside stand along U.S. 29 has recently shed over 40 pounds, part of his quest to race a snowmobile across the frozen surface of the state once known as "Seward's Folly."

"My weight now is what it was in high school," says Simpson, laughing as he recalls a longtime Apple Shed customer asking him for the whereabouts of the owner.

"I recognized him," says another friend, Alan Van Clief. "But it's not the Russ Simpson I've been seeing for eight or 10 years."

Simpson is in the final days of training for the world's longest snowmobile race, the Iron Dog, an event whose four-time champion is Todd Palin. And Simpson says he got a phone call from Alaska's so-called "First Dude" after visiting Wasilla in search of a race partner.

"I thought it was my brother-in-law playing a joke," says Simpson.

As it turned out, Palin was trying to be helpful, but rookie racer Simpson won't get to compete with Palin this year. He'll have to content himself with the so-called "trail class," the mere 1,100-mile version of the Iron Dog. But for Simpson, there's something larger at stake than pride: his life.

Five years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage 2-B melanoma in his shoulder– "basically from standing in the sun when we...

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Meadow Creek Parkway: Rubber hits road

The man touted as instrumental in getting what was long called the Meadow Creek Parkway built– or at least 1.4 miles of it– wasn't there. Former U.S. Senator John W. Warner, 84, checked into the hospital the night before the January 6 ribbon-cutting/unveiling of the portion of the road named in his honor.

Most of the speakers at the ceremony invoked Warner's name and how much he'd done for Charlottesville and Albemarle: the $27-million federal earmark for the parkway's unbuilt interchange that revived the aging project in 2005, the levees that keep the James River out of oft-flooded Scottsville, and National Ground Intelligence Center and its $2 billion payroll, which, according to former supervisor Forrest Marshall, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to move to Maryland.

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Restaurant Week tip: Reserve early for semi-annual food fandango

From January 23 to 29, Charlottesville will once again experience the hugely popular Restaurant Week, which draws eager diners from within Charlottesville and the surrounding area. The week of three-course, fixed price menus is sure to put an end to every citizen’s obligatory New Year’s Diet.

Held twice a year, the Hook-sponsored event has been in existence since the summer of 2009. It will boast some of the old favorites– Keswick Hall's Fossett's, the Old Mill Room at the Boar’s Head Inn, and The Melting Pot– but will also feature some new talent.

Da Luca, Tempo, and West Main Street's newest venue, Balkan Bistro, are just a few of the most recent additions to the line-up, with the full list of 20 participants at

The manager and owner of Balkan Bistro, Annja Andelic, hoping to expand the reach of her Eastern European cuisine, says she's “very excited” about participating and keeping her “fingers crossed” about a possible business boom in the dreary winter month– a sentiment echoed by Anna Harrison, publisher of the Hook.

Harrison says Restaurant Week is held in January and July because these are “two of the slowest times of the year for restaurants,” so the seven days of non-stop feasting is a “good way to boost revenue and is great for the economy.”

Restaurant Week not only delights culina...

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Monsoon, switched: Friends season Market Street with Siam

How did two Thai art students wind up taking over Monsoon, Charlottesville's oldest Asian fusion restaurant? Well, to hear 31-year-old "Kitty" Ashi tell the story, it began in Bangkok.

Kitty hails from a restaurant-running family, but it was in art school in Bangkok that she became friends with the now 29-year-old restaurant co-owner, "Pooh" Dutdao.

Starting as a dishwasher, Kitty arrived first in America and began working her way up the ranks at a corporate restaurant, Tara Thai. Last summer, while looking for an opportunity, she spotted an online ad saying that Monsoon, started over 20 years ago, was for sale. By this point, Pooh had moved to Central Virginia and Tara Thai as well.

"It's kind of like destiny," says Kitty.

Building owner Lu-Mei Chang had found a duo willing to carry on some traditions– even while revamping the menu toward Thai specialities.

Today, lunch specials are $7.99, and dinner starts at just a penny more. The restaurant at 113 Market Street, which they bought from Chang last June, is now called Monsoon Siam.

"We kept the Monsoon name," says 31-year-old Kitty, "because we wanted to give her respect."

True to their art school roots, the two have adorned the walls with some of their original artworks, including collages of stained wood, and they've installed a record player– yes, playing vinyl&...

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Escafé readies: Grand reopening before month's end

Escafé's coming back, baby. As first reported in the Hook, the venerable Downtown Mall restaurant with the hip nightlife recently packed its bags from its longtime home in the shadow of the Omni hotel with plans to open up in the former home of Oxo, which ended a nine-year run in 2008.

"It's merging what Oxo was with what Escafé wants to be," enthuses the 44-year-old owner-operator, Todd Howard.

And that could be one dynamic combo. It's the first breath of life in nearly four years for the Water Street site which, as Oxo, was a chef-centric place whose white-on-white interior kept the emphasis on the food while promoting a pretty wild late-night scene at the same time.

Under Howard, however, the walls are starting to see some color again. And anyone who remembers the upper seating area as a place of quietude may be in for a surprise as a pair of ceiling-mounted speakers have just been installed up there at what Howard calls "the terrace" to help the popular Wednesday night Karaoke and Saturday night music video dance parties rock. (He says that sound shouldn't intrude on the rest of the restaurant.)

One thing that won't change is the famous two-to...

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