A Winston Churchill quote-turned-trope flutters like a swarm of champagne bubbles in our heads as we sink deep into leather chairs at one of Charlottesville's premier restaurants.
"It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
It’s 5ish on a recent Friday evening, the beginning of service. We’re the only diners seated so far, yet not blue hairs. Strategy guided our booking of one of two window tables early in the evening for a final round of research. We need photos that might do justice to what lands before us, so the natural light is key. The wide-angle interior view offers perspective on the graceful mechanics that unfold as patrons file in. Most importantly, the privacy affords the chance to openly synthesize our take on The Alley Light.
And, well...it’s complicated. With its ever-changing menu and village of personalities, this speakeasy-style restaurant is so layered with nuance, fluid on so many levels, that tracking down and penning its soul has become the snipe hunt of our food-writing lives.
Then, mid-dinner, the epiphany hits us: The essence is about letting go and getting lost.
It’s the culinary version of a sketch by M.C. Escher - you don’t solve it, you joyfully lose yourself in its whimsical mastery.
This tiny, former studio apartment covertly stashed in an alley just off the Downtown Mall, marked only by an inconspicuous lantern above the door, delivers giant doses of serendipity.
Our score of innovative and fresh restaurants in town can be counted on one hand, give or take the occasional one-hit wonder, which often lands us in a continuous loop. Thanks to a dynamic philosophy that eschews the comfort zone concept, The Alley Light keeps us guessing, and returning for more.
Recs + Rants
50 Shades. Unbelievably this small kitchen offers 50 dishes at every service. Half of those are constant - a series of small plates, shared dishes, boards and desserts. Our staples on this slate of usual suspects are the French Green Beans, the Carrots, the Tuna Carpaccio, and the Pork Belly. Perfectly etched on a chalkboard in the dining room is a menu of weekly specials that rounds out the other 25 or so dishes. This is your walk on the wild side, babe. On a recent visit, a Squid Ink Risotto topped with lemon verbena-scented mussels and spicy bits of chorizo, anointed with dots of Meyer lemon confiture and finishes of parsley oil left us gasping with pleasure. Lamb Carpaccio, paper thin slices of lamb loin spread atop a broad stroke of saffron aioli with a handful of vinegary Planet Earth Diversified tatsoi inspired smiles around the table another night. What can best be described as an 'elevated deconstructed gazpacho' - a tower of crab, watermelon, heirloom tomato, basil lime sorbet, and crispy proscuitto set in a clear tomato broth - cooled and cleansed our palates with bright summer flavors. We could write a novella about the many specials we've crushed on. Here's the catch: you basically have to consider each encounter a one-night stand because just when you fall too hard, your crush blows town. Don't fret though because odds are you'll be back sooner than you think for another round of seduction.
In hindsight. Two years ago, our first night as official Charlottesville residents, we joined The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema for a review dinner of The Alley Light. In his final piece, one strike had to do with the very casual service style, described as “better suited to a college tavern.” We’ve chewed on that observation a long time, and while it stings, we tend to catch his drift as it relates to his core audience - Washingtonians. Let’s be honest, Washington’s fine dining is emblematic of the big city it is, and Charlottesville's dining bears its own personality. That’s okay and nothing anyone here should envy. To us, this commentary boils down to a difference in paradigms. Around here, we dig on the easy-going, informal style servers bring to your table, as long as passion and knowledge for the food and drink comes with it. That’s what you will find here. The second ding in Sietsema's review was the size of tables and configuration of the dining room: “Cozy doesn’t necessarily translate to comfortable.” We’re happy to report that over the years, the crew has played Tetris with the room and solved the layout puzzle to make for ample space.
Board AF. Simple, refreshing and colorful, one of our favorites in town is the Vegetable Board. Spread with a lovely arrangement of in-season and pickled vegetables, dashed with the perfect dose of salt and vinegar, it's practically a still life work of art. It's simple, straightforward ingredients served as their best versions of themselves. When you get past the remorse of disrupting this artful display, you are basically grazing with your hands at the best vegetarian aioli monstre feast in town, and feeling slightly self righteous about it. But don’t let it go to your head because…
WTF(oie). If you dig on French food, the decadence permeating the menu won’t surprise you. It’s a litany of dietary indulgences that reads like food smut and offers several iterations of foie gras that will make you blush. Foie Brûlée, on the surface, rings like something you’d vigorously scrub from your Google search history after devouring. Chef Robin McDaniel loves to pair foie with sweet accompaniments and uses several pastry techniques to deliver something sinful, savory and subtly sweet. The foie is cured and cooked with egg, cream, kirsch, white port and Sauternes - is there is a better foie pairing than Sauternes!? - and served over a rhubarb carpaccio (think fancy AF fruit roll-up). The brûlée is a raspberry tuile, which is similar in look and texture to the burnt sugar topping we'd expect. It's all finished with Chiles Orchard strawberries macerated in sugar, kirsch, and black pepper, some almond crumble and a drizzle of balsamic. No one knows when a new seasonal take on this version will return, but trust us: if you see foie gras on the menu, do yourself right and dial it up.
Cocktails and Dreams. Maybe you’ve heard about Micah LeMon, bar manager and cocktail artist at The Alley Light? Well read on all things mixology, eloquent booze writer and funky urban farmer, LeMon brings a refreshing intellectual curiosity to the craft that locals are so blessed to tap. If he weren’t so warm, kind and quick to dismiss the applause he’s received in this business, you might hate him for being so damn talented. Like the food menu, his thoughtful drink list reflects and changes with the seasons, so chances are you will find something that suits your mood nicely. If you choose to go it alone, you’re forgiven if you feel overwhelmed by the tower of booze that lords over you. LeMon stocks a selection so deep, it puts many big city cocktail clubs to shame. Being suckers for booze labels, we love to get lost gawking at that wall of wonder. Your best bet might be to light up his eyes by ordering the Dealer’s Choice. Not only does this mean the delightful thrill of imbibing on a fresh creation, it elicits an educational dose of conversation about obscure spirits you’ve never encountered before. Pro tip: The point here is to let the professionals take over, so relax and don't go overboard with direction. It's cool to guide the dealer's hand a bit by highlighting spirits you love or hate. Just promise not to order a Jack & Coke. Pro tip 2: Stay tuned for LeMon’s cocktail book - The Imbible - to hit shelves this fall.
Choose wisely. This is one of the priciest spots in town, and justifiably so. Chris Dunbar, the affable AF owner and GM, describes The Alley Light as a fine dining destination. When we consider the high-end ingredients and roster of top-tier talent that makes those ingredients dance on your plate (or in your glass), we’re down with that label. That said, you should know there’s a wild card in the deck, and how you play it will determine how the experience aligns with the check you will pay at the end of the night. We’re talking about location, location, location. Many of the thoughtfully constructed dishes come with an unwritten context for how and where to devour them.
Lucky for you, P+K has developed a formula that guarantees the perfect Alley Light experience, and all it requires is some basic forethought. You should know by now to reserve in advance because tables don’t come easy here. While you’re at it, consider what kind of night you’re looking for and ask for the right table.
Here’s a cheat sheet to guide the way.
- Barstools: Ideal for cocktails/wine, snacks, small plates, chitchat with mixologists and fellow imbibers, fancy first dates. No reservations required.
- Cabaret Tables: You can do it all from this perch and get a 360-degree people-watching perspective. Stagger your food orders to avoid space invasion by too many plates at once. No need for clutter to clash with your vibe.
- Lounge/Couches: This is where you kick it with your homies. Cocktails, wine, snacks and boards are the way to go here. Because leaning forward from a couch to stab a bite of $34 halibut then guiding it to your face under a cupped hand is just plain awkward, stick to dishes that are tailored for noshing and grazing.
- Lounge/Windows (for two): Anything goes here, even dirty talk if you are so inclined. No other spot in the house offers this much privacy.
- Dining Room: The full spectrum of fine dining awaits you here. Tables are spaced out enough that you don't need to whisper, but some discretion is advised.
#ImWithHer. We’d love to see more baller industry women celebrated in Charlottesville. In our book, Chef Robin McDaniel is one of the best in the business and somehow buzz about her is absent. WTF? It’s undeniable that (prior Alley Light) Chef Jose De Brito shot the moon and garnered high praise and accolades when helming the kitchen. His inspired fare and reputation drew the likes of Tom Sietsema to Charlottesville. It’s also true he saw a fire in McDaniel and mentored her. His legacy of excellence is woven deeply into the fabric of the menu where some of his dishes remain. That said, touching and thoughtful tributes surrounding Jose's departure fell short on highlighting the creative spirit in the remaining crew and glossed over the collaboration that continues to make The Alley Light one of the best restaurants in town. It’s never a one-man show, and more often than not there’s a woman behind that man, propping him up. With all due respect to De Brito, who established one hell of a cornerstone, the sequel directed by McDaniel deserves major props. We’re not trying to spark a gender debate here and we don’t believe that kind of awkwardness inhabits this cozy joint. There’s clear and present harmony at The Alley Light and we credit much of that to McDaniel’s player-coach approach in the kitchen and empathy for front-of-house nuances (thanks to her starting in this business as a server). Her inspired dishes gracefully toe the line between complex and accessible - no fuss but plenty of elegance in this French fare. In a space seemingly dominated by men, it’s refreshing to shine a light on a woman who quietly gets shit done and blows minds while at it. Hats off to you, Chef Robin!