Hooked on Charlottesville

A university town…and so much more.

Jeffrey Gleason

Like many people, I first got to know Charlottesville as a college student when I’d visit friends at the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly, my hazy recollection includes packed bars, dancing on floors sticky with beer, and late night rambles across UVA’s Lawn.

A few decades later, I returned. But this time, the visit included the multi-course tasting menu at Red Pump Kitchen—now no longer offered though still open to private events—on the Downtown Mall. And, no shame, I was in bed before midnight.

I’ve grown up and so, it seems, has Charlottesville. Beyond wild college weekends, it offers visitors a choose-your-own-adventure of fine dining—it was just named one of the “next great food cities” in the U.S. by Food & Wine magazine—plus shopping, history, culture, and, yes, perhaps a drink. Like the lead-up to finals week, it’s tempting to cram as much as possible into a visit. But there’s no need to run yourself ragged. Charlottesville is a place to relax and enjoy.

Don’t believe me? Just listen to Ralph Sampson. The UVA basketball legend ruled Charlottesville in the 1980s. During his four years there, Sampson appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated five times.  

But aside from an occasional trip to The Corner—the cluster of restaurants and shops along University Avenue—he doesn’t recall a lot about Charlottesville, the town. “As a student athlete,” he tells me, “you didn’t get to see much outside of the gym, outside study hall and classes. You’ve got so much going on.”

The NBA Hall of Famer recently returned to Charlottesville to open a new restaurant, a fashionable sports bar called Ralph Sampson’s American Taproom in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, and he’s discovering the city all over again. He says he likes to explore the area in his SUV: “There are these little pockets—country stores, farmers markets, downtown. It’s picturesque to me.”


Start with a Toast

Taking Sampson’s advice, I seek out new corners of Charlottesville, starting with Virginia wine, something that wasn’t really a thing a few decades ago. Now the Monticello Wine Trail includes 40 wineries, including scenic spots like King Family Vineyards, where visitors can watch polo matches while they sip Chardonnay; Blenheim Vineyards, which is owned by music legend Dave Matthews; and Early Mountain Vineyards, one of Sampson’s favorites.

I decide to check in on Michael Shaps, the celebrated winemaker who has won Virginia’s Governor’s Cup, the state’s highest honor, dozens of times. He has two vineyards in state and one in Burgundy, France, but it’s easy to savor his wines right here in town at his warehouse tasting room, Wineworks Extended. I sip my way through a four-glass Virginia sampler, making note of his 2016 Meritage, an especially smooth blend of five reds. 

It’s enough to whet my appetite, and I head over to Belmont, a funky neighborhood with a tiny commercial district that just happens to include some incredible restaurants. Tonight, it will be Mas Tapas, a startlingly authentic Spanish eatery. I’m handed a paper menu and a pencil to mark my order. And what choices! Anchovy filets in garlic and lemon? Catalan shrimp? Papas bravas, a dish of spiced Yukon potatoes? I’m overwhelmed, but my server steers me right. When I’m done, the table is piled with tiny dishes, each a lovely memory.

Sated, I head back to the aptly named Quirk Hotel. Its flowing white lobby stretches the length of the building and doubles as an art gallery. I press 5 on the elevator for a nightcap at The Rooftop. Sipping a Burnt Ol’ Fashioned, I drink in the unaccustomed view of the mountain-rimmed city which looks like it could be somewhere in Switzerland. 


Down by the Riverside

The next morning, I start with a Charlottesville favorite, Bodo’s Bagels. Even with a line out the front door, service is quick. In a few minutes, I’m feasting on a chicken salad bagel sandwich topped with sprouts. Insiders know it’s really made with turkey, which makes it taste even richer. 

Properly carbo-loaded, I’m bound for a stroll along the Rivanna River. Didn’t know there was a river in Charlottesville? Until a few years ago, you weren’t alone. But it was here that the Monacan Indians lived, and later the Jefferson family at nearby Monticello. Today, a 20-mile trail wraps around the city, following the river and its tributaries. I’m out to see just a tiny stretch. 

Starting from Riverview Park, I follow a paved path to see the rapids. The Rivanna River Company even rents canoes and runs shuttles, making for a fun six-mile trip downstream. Once the river was home to industry, which I learn when I stop for a chai tea at the Wool Factory, a former textile mill now home to fine-dining restaurant Broadcloth, along with a coffee shop, brewery, and event and co-working spaces. [See Virginia Living, March/April 2022]. 

Although Charlottesville is much more than its University, Sampson tells me it would be a mistake not to visit. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and strolling the Grounds (it’s never called a campus) is both inspiring and surprising. I’m moved by the famous view of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda from the Lawn, but that’s just the start. 

Turning east, visitors find the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Dedicated in 2021, the $7 million walk-through monument lists the names of the more than 4,000 slaves who shaped the land, built the buildings, and staffed the school during the first half of the 1800s. 

In its early years, UVA attracted students like Edgar Allan Poe, and I head to the West Lawn to peer through a glass door into his preserved room. The famous Gothic writer left school after less than a year in Charlottesville, having racked up serious gambling debts, but his connection endures through The Raven Society, which proclaims it’s the “oldest and most prestigious honors society at the University of Virginia.”  

Jeffrey Gleason

Across the street, in front of what used to be Alderman Library—now known as the Main Library and closed until 2024 for a $160 million update and expansion—I find a towering glass box surrounding four towering concrete panels, pieces of the Berlin Wall. The side that once faced West Berlin is alive with graffiti art. The Eastern side is blank, reflecting Soviet repression. The installation commemorates November 9, 1989, when, as the University explains, “the human spirit triumphed over oppression, to celebrate those unalienable rights which Thomas Jefferson so famously championed and cherished.” 

Before leaving, I try to retrace my late-night Lawn visits, opening a wooden gate and stepping into a brick-walled garden behind one of the pavilions at the heart of the Grounds. It’s one of the University’s 10 pavilion gardens located behind two orderly rows of brick buildings—pavilions in UVA parlance—that flank the Lawn and still house faculty and students. The Rotunda, the heart of the design, is all part of Jefferson’s ingenious Academical Village. Although it feels like trespassing, this part of the University is open to the public, offering a quiet stroll under century-old trees accented with herbaceous beds, serpentine walls, and the 18th-century flora favored by Jefferson. 

But I’m not done with Mr. Jefferson yet. Now it’s time to visit the city’s most famous address, Monticello. (Just turn over a nickel, and you’ll recognize the third President’s home.) The civics class classic has changed over the years. For starters, you can park at its base and walk up the gentle two-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail. Guides at the house celebrate Jefferson’s genius and also discuss the landscape of slavery at Monticello, addressing both his relationship with Sally Hemings and Mulberry Row, Monticello’s epi-center of slave life. 

A new behind-the-scenes tour visits the once off-limits second and third floors of the mountaintop mansion, including the Dome Room. And outdoors, you can wander the gardens to see heirloom vegetables, like eggplants, asparagus, and peanuts that would have flourished in Jefferson’s day. 

There’s plenty more to explore, but I’m bound for one of the city’s newest offerings, a 1930s dairy plant repurposed as a gleaming food hall. The Dairy Market presents more than a dozen dining choices including local favorites like Take It Away sandwiches, Citizen Burger, and Moo Thru ice cream, along with the Milkman’s Bar, a boozy take on a classic drugstore soda fountain. I decide on the Filipino comfort food offered at Manila Street, ordering delicious chicken curry and rice noodles.


Off to Market

The following morning, a Saturday, provides a chance to take part in a city ritual—the downtown farmers market. Recently, the city has doubled its market choices. A new one popped up just two blocks away from the original at the Ix Art Park, a repurposed industrial site that now houses a funky collection of sculpture and artwork, along with restaurants and shops. 

Both markets offer fresh meats and produce, and plenty of opportunity for grazing, whether it’s street tacos, or turmeric and ginger smoothies. If the bright blue Basam food truck is at Ix, make a beeline for its ramen and Japanese food. You can’t go wrong with Spicy Honey Garlic Kassan, a crunchy snack that just might be the perfect chicken nugget.

For other choices, hit one of Ix’s restaurants, like the takeout wood-fired pizza at Lampo, or perhaps a flight at North American Sake Brewery, or pretzel bites and a beer at Three Notch’d Brewing Company.  

Properly fortified, it’s time to hit the shops.

One of the most significant changes to Charlottesville was the creation of the downtown pedestrian mall, which began as a U.S. Bicentennial project in 1976. Now, it’s the city’s front yard, where everyone from street musicians to undergraduates to retirees out for their 10,000 steps, all mix seamlessly. 

Visitors come to shop at places like New Dominion Bookshop, the state’s oldest, dating to 1924. There, savor the ultimate book-browsing experience, and if you’re lucky, autographed copies of books by local writers like John Grisham might be for sale. For a Charlottesville-themed souvenir, stop at O’Suzannah gift shop, or pick up a hand-painted scarf or Blue Ridge Mountain photograph from C’Ville Arts, a gallery featuring more than 50 local artists.

Before heading home, I end my day with a beverage that the Founding Fathers would have recognized, driving a few miles south of town on Route 29 to Potter’s Craft Cider. Housed in a former country church nestled in the foothills, the rough stone walls and exposed beams offer a welcoming vibe. 

I order a tasting flight and a cheese plate and head outside. Taking a sip of Harrison, a cider made from Virginia-grown apples aged in French oak barrels, I survey the scene. A band plays to an audience laid out on blankets, while kids dance in the late afternoon sun.

I think back to what Sampson told me. “People think Charlottesville is the University of Virginia, but it’s much more than that.” From Spanish tapas to river trails to a cider tasting in the woods, I’m beginning to understand what he means. 


Ralph Sampson’s High Five

Like an easy layup, University of Virginia basketball legend Ralph Sampson, owner of Ralph Sampson’s American Taproom, can suggest plenty of things to do in the Charlottesville area.

Crozet: Sampson is drawn to this growing town on the western edge of Albemarle County. “Crozet is blowing my mind. It’s small but quaint. I tend to go there when I want to get out.” His latest find: Smoked Kitchen & Tap, a popular barbecue food truck that’s gone brick and mortar. @smokedkitchenandtap

Early Mountain Vineyards: 30 miles beyond the city, it’s a Sampson’s favorite. Although not much of a drinker, he does like an occasional glass of red wine. “I love being able to sit down, relax, spread a blanket and enjoy the place,” he says. EarlyMountain.com

Matchbox: Although this fancy wood-fired pizza joint also serves burgers, steaks, and salmon, Sampson sticks to the pizza: “It’s a really good place to get good food. The owner respects privacy, and the staff is really professional.” MatchboxRestaurants.com/Charlottesville

The Ridley at the Draftsman Hotel: Sampson’s a fan of the elevated Southern cuisine served at this hotel restaurant near UVA. “It’s become one of those iconic places for me. It has an amazing brunch, and an amazing tomahawk steak, which is very large.” TheRidleyVa.com

The UVA Lawn: In his fourth year, Sampson had the honor of living on the Lawn, the centerpiece of the UVA Grounds. “I usually go back and knock on room Number 6 and greet the student,” he says. “You can’t miss the University, and you can’t miss the Lawn.”


Make It a Weekend

Jeffrey Gleason
EAT

– Fleurie: Get a taste of Paris at this tiny French restaurant just off the Downtown Mall. Menu often includes local fare. FleurieRestaurant.com

– Mas Tapas: Sharing defines this neighborhood tapas spot with an open kitchen. Order half-sizes or larger raciones. MasTapas.com

– Red Pump Kitchen: Luxe dining in the heart of the Downtown Mall. Focaccias and handmade pastas are standouts. (No longer offering the tasting menu experience and, instead, focusing on private events.) RedPumpKitchen.com

Jeffrey Gleason
DRINK

– Potter’s Craft Cider: Flights are a good bet. And a food truck rounds out a snack-centric menu. Live music on weekends. PottersCraftCider.com

– Three Notch’d Brewing Company: Three Notch’d wins out with top-notch brews and its airy dining room and patio. ThreeNotchdBrewing.com

STAY

– Draftsman Hotel: This hotel is near the center of C’ville life. Keep an eye out for canine ambassadors, Mocha and Maxey. TheDraftsmanHotel.com

– The Graduate: Stuffed wahoos adorn every guest room. Plus complimentary bikes and a giant game room. GraduateHotels.com/Charlottesville

– Quirk Hotel Charlottesville: Local artists are showcased throughout this chic inn. The Rooftop bar’s views are prime. QuirkHotels.com

SHOP

– The Albemarle Angler: Book a fly-fishing trip or shop for brands like Filson and Barbour at this full-service outfitter. AlbemarleAngler.com

– Caspari: The flagship location for this publisher of exquisitely designed paper products is located on the Downtown Mall. CaspariOnline.com

Cou Cou Rachou: With this bakery, owner Rachel De Jong brings authentic French baking to the Blue Ridge. CouCouRachou.com

– Eloise: Look for brands like White+Warren, Misa Los Angeles, and Kinross cashmere in this chic, high-end boutique. ShopEloise.com

– Folly: This home furnishings store and design studio sells an eclectic mix of furniture, lighting, accessories, and gifts. FollyCville.com

– New Dominion Bookshop: Located in Historic Downtown Charlottesville, this bookshop is the oldest independent bookseller in Virginia. NDBookshop.com

– The Happy Cook: Kitchenware shop that caters to novices and professional chefs. Plus, a wide range of cooking classes. TheHappyCook.com

– Ivy Nursery: Healthy plants, top-notch staff, and, swoon-worthy garden accents make this a best bet for the green set. IvyNursery.com

– Scarpa: This boutique eschews the tide of trends in favor of fresh ideas and smart design with a thoughtfully curated collection. ThinkScarpa.com

– Spring Street Boutique: With a fashion-forward culture and unique inventory, this boutique is also easy on the AmEx. SpringStreetBoutique.com


This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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