One of my favorite things to do when traveling is experiencing the local restaurants. There’s something about it that makes me feel at home, like I’m sharing in a destination other people might not know about when they’re in town. Charlottesville, Virginia’s Downtown Pedestrian Mall and the surrounding area are becoming the scene for foodies, with everything from classic Southern food with an upscale twist to classic comfort food to farm to table goodies. One of the easiest ways to experience a taste of the restaurants is with a food tour. We took the Taste of Virginia Food Tour and found new favorites and rediscovered old favorites.
8 Charlottesville Restaurants You’ll Want to Visit
1. Draft Taproom – A new concept on the Downtown Mall, the Draft Taproom features more than 60 beers on tap, and beer is sold by the ounce. The self-serve atmosphere is perfect for sampling. You are issued a card, which is placed on a screen above each beer you wish to try. It keeps a tally of the price and once you are done, you can bring the card to the register to pay. I am not a beer drinker, but I was impressed by the selection, which rotates often, and even found a delicious grapefruit beer that I tried both times I visited.
The food is well worth a look too. It’s not your typical bar food. We sampled several items from their “Beer Inspired Menu,” including the Pretzel Bites, served with a delicious beer cheese dip, the smooth and creamy Chicken Corn Chowder, the mussels steamed with garlic, shallot, celery, butter, IPA & pesto broth, the Fried Brussell Sprouts and the Marbled Chocolate Cheesecake. Although all the items were delicious, my favorite was the mussels, which tasted fresh and were perfectly seasoned. As an added bonus, because Draft Taproom pays a living wage, each month they pick a different charity and donate their tips. Insider Tip: This site can be very busy on the weekends. Plan accordingly and make time in your schedule in case there is a wait.
2. The Whiskey Jar – The owner of the Whiskey Jar takes the Farm to Table movement seriously. In fact, he purchased his own farm so he could grow vegetables for the restaurant during the summer. He has partnerships with other local farms and purchases his meats from farmers within an hours drive. All of the food is made from scratch and you can taste the difference. I’ve tried several of the menu items and enjoyed them, but the dish that surprised me the most was the Fried Chicken and Collards. I’ve never been a fan of collards before, but these are slightly tart and mixed with Kite’s Virginia Country bacon converted me. Insider Tip: You will want to save room for dessert, especially the Pecan Pie served with Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream prepared on site by baker Rachel Pennington.
3. The Spice Diva – While not a restaurant per se, this is a cook and foodie lovers dream shop. You can taste the difference between these freshly ground spices, salt, pepper and herb blends, many of which are difficult to find. The shop also sells gourmet tea in bulk as well as extracts, bitters and gourmet chocolate.
You’ll want to browse the selection of gourmet cookbooks and sign up for one of the many different cooking classes and workshops offered at the Spice Diva. Need a gourmet gift for that someone special? Gift baskets are available for purchase.
4. Feast!- is both a market and a cafe. Their mission is to connect local farmers and artisan food producers to the community. When you step inside the market, you will discover it truly is a “Feast” for the eyes. Samples of the locally sourced products are spread throughout the store, tempting you to taste. We tried a charcuterie of local cheeses, meats and condiments, including a smooth and creamy cheese made in small batches by Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet that made me wish I could slip an entire block onto the plane as I headed home. If you are looking for a gift anyone will appreciate, Feast offers a selection of gift baskets or the opportunity to create your own custom gift basket.
5. Los Jarachos – is a traditional Mexican restaurant. (In other words, expect classic Mexican dishes, not the Americanized Tex-Mex dishes.) The dishes are prepared fresh when ordered so expect a short wait. We tried the salmon, which was fork tender and delightfully seasoned. But, the rice! It was amazing. Flavored with just a touch of cilantro and other spices, I could have eaten a plate of it! The presentation is beautifully done and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.
6. Pearl’s Bake Shoppe– Named after Pearl, owner Laurie Blakely’s grandmother, Pearl’s Bake Shoppe is dedicated to continuing Pearl’s tradition of cooking goodies from scratch. The creations range from whimsical to classic, but all are delicious. The cupcake menu features 8 “everyday” cupcakes, served daily, and Specialty cupcakes, served on a rotating basis. I was impressed with the Gluten Free selection, available daily and made with Laurie’s special blend of flour that doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste, and their Vegan selection. Also included on the menu are a selection of items ranging from brownies, cookies, cakes, cake pops, hand pies and more. Insider’s Tip: Be sure to check for the Orange Blossom Cupcakes, a secret family recipe invented by grandmother Pearl.
7. Gearhart’s Chocolate– Who doesn’t want to satisfy their chocolate craving sometimes? First opened in 2001 by Tim Gearhart, their shop has expanded from artisan chocolates to include a daily selection of bakery items. You can watch chocolate being made through glass windows – up to a 3-day process- while sipping a speciality coffee or hot chocolate. Their signature chocolates are available for purchase daily.
8. Citizen’s Burger Bar believes in the motto “Give me burgers, beers, and ballgames, or give me death.” With that being said, they offer gourmet burgers (and more)/ They partner with local farms to bring you the freshest ingredients, along with meat that includes no hormones, no preservatives, grass fed beef , free range chickens and Virginia cheeses. I tried the “Citizen Burger” a huge burger made from Timbercreek beef, McClure swiss, black onion, garlic aioli, iceberg, tomato, house brioche and topped with a fried pickle. Your choice of side dish is included. If you prefer a custom burger, they offer a “Build Your Own” burger with your choice of bun, meat, cheese, free and premium toppings and side. Note: This restaurant is not included in the Taste of Virginia Food Tour.
Insider Tip: Take the Taste of Virginia Food tour at the beginning of your vacation as you’ll probably want to revisit several of the restaurants like we did. The tour includes coupons for 10% off future meals at all the sites we visited. Deborah is a wonderful hostess, making everyone feel welcome, sharing bits of history and trivia about Charlottesville, and taking the time to answer questions. She offers both a 3 hour lunch tour and a 2 1/2 hour evening tour. All tastings are included in the price.
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