Go for a stroll through your social feeds and a few thumb swipes will more than likely surface a diatribe or two expressing the downer 2016 has been, with a whiney appeal for the year to just end already. This cacophony of angst - like the hypnotic drone of vuvuzelas at a South African football match - can eventually numb your senses, pollute your outlook and find you ignoring the little rays of light around you.
Yes, we can all agree that 2016 has delivered one right cross after another, leaving many feeling like poor Ned Ryerson here.
Still, the year also delivered some very bright moments to the lovely city of Charlottesville and its thriving food scene, so let's push back from the table, pour ourselves a healthy dose of War & Rust and celebrate those bright spots.
Six months ago, the four of us launched Pen + Knife. It feels like it's been much longer than that, which tells us we might be on to something because life slowed down once we fell into the habits of appreciation and reflection. Pro athletes talk about how the speed of the game eventually slows down for them. Maybe that's at play here (except the pro part) and we have developed an intimacy with the playing field. It sure as hell does not hurt when the players are the kindest, most soulful and communal in the league. Their generous vibe makes it easier to glimpse beneath the kimono at a creative and driven spirit that gains steam by the day.
We've loved getting to know this food town and can't wait to dance with it more next year. Until then, here's a look in the rearview mirror at some P+K highlights.
Top three restaurants and a staple in your order at each?
Hot on their heels: Tavern & Grocery's Squid & Eggs, Public Fish & Oyster's Lime Leaf Moules Frites, Tavola's Buccatini All'Amatriciana
Let’s talk favorite cocktails.
Baby, it's cold outside. Which might explain why our cocktail nods skew more toward 'brown water' and bitter flavors right now. These drinks bring warmth and comfort. They also inspire bouts of pause and reflection since the sophisticated flavor palette requires sipping and enjoying more so than slugging.
- Jota Jota @ C&O - Bulleit bourbon, chili and coffee infused Campari, Carpano Antica vermouth
- Bitter Giuseppe @ Lampo - Cynar, Carpano Antica vermouth, lemon
- Fashionably Late @ Public Fish & Oyster - Bulleit rye, demerara syrup, angostura + orange bitters, flamed orange peel
- Smokey Rose @ Oakhart Social - Copper Fox Rye, lemon juice, rosemary simple syrup, ginger beer, Laphroaig 10 year float
- Akrotiri Heat @ Parallel 38 - Espolon blanco tequila, piri piri syrup cinnamon berry, hibiscus soda, citrus
Best all-around experience?
Hands down, Flight Club night at Fleurie Restaurant in early November! While technically an outlier special event experience, we can't deny this was one of our favorite Cville dinners of the year. Local super-somm-super-mom Erin Scala went toe to toe on her home turf with visiting DC wine-world heavy-hitter, Matthew Carroll. As anticipated, the “brawl on the mall” lived up to our expectations and then some, with five deliciously executed food courses, 10 mystery wine pairings, and a packed house deciding the fate of the contenders at each step along the way. (Did we mention there was also a top-hatted emcee and dramatic lighting transitions between voting reveals?)
While Carroll rolled into the evening packing some serious Spanish heat, Scala carefully curated a French offensive that would have made Napoleon proud. To make the evening all the more interesting, each mystery wine pairing was served in double blind format leaving even the somm contenders in the dark until the votes were tallied.
A strong showing by local food and wine biz personalities contributed to lively crowd participation and a great convivial atmosphere, with just the right amount of competitive spirit for the in-depth wine guessing game, optional with each course. In the end, once the flurry of wine knowledge dropping had cleared, Scala and the home team emerged victorious, along with everyone in attendance lucky enough to snag a seat.
There are many reasons we love Fleurie (more on this later), but it is times like Flight Club when those feelings are cemented. As one of the few remaining, truly fine dining establishments in town, we sometimes forget that at the core of Fleurie’s beautifully composed preparations, thoughtfully devised presentations, and highly attuned attention to detail (both in the kitchen and on the dining room floor) lies a warm, welcoming, and lighthearted vibe sustained daily by Erin and her husband, Joe. This truth was in no clearer light than at Flight Club. Needless to say, we are anxiously awaiting round two.
Standout industry personalities?
Anthony Restivo @ C&O. On the stick at the coziest bar on the planet, Anthony brings layers of endearing personality to his craft. Among many interesting aces up the sleeve of his sweet vintage shirt is his production credit for this dope new Angel Olsen video. Sweet, cultured and well read AF, he always sends us off into the night with some new music or film suggestion, and occasionally a perfectly hand-rolled smoke.
The Lampo Crew. It feels like a cop-out packaging these guys together, but most times we're there - usually lunch - they work at vampire speed, covering each other on the brick oven, gracefully tending the flow of action, and doing it all with so much confidence. There's an abstract Voltron thing at play here as their work is so seamlessly integrated. When you see Loren or Ian outside the lair, they smack of happiness with what's in front of them and intimate desires to take this town down another thrilling rabbit hole. These cats seem to have found the formula for Charlottesville, and we expect them to make game changing moves next year. Can't think of another gang we cheer for more!
Patrick McClure @ Tavern & Grocery. The first time we saddled up to his bar, we were slightly irritated by how long it took Patrick to sling an order of drinks our party’s way. It turned out the wait was more about the deliberate love he dials into each drink - no going through the motions here - and turned out to be well worth it. During the stretch of research for the review, we got to know him and never tired of his travel and industry tales. Dude’s been around the block a few times and is, as they say, good people.
Matt Greene @ JM Stock Provisions. The opposite of Will's element, he has to admit, is a butcher shop. He’d love to come off as natural and wise in such a carnivorous setting surrounded by so much macho meat, but he knows better than to even try to fake it. Thankfully, despite the bulging arms, tattoos and Brooklyn bad-boy backstory, Matt is a gentle giant who makes the whole meat-buying experience accessible, less intimidating and damn right fun.
Somewhere along the line we developed a Juice Laundry habit and find ourselves there more than we might like to admit. Thankfully they offer credit on bottle returns and a legit loyalty program, which slightly dilutes the financial cognitive dissonance. That and we truly feel good in the wake of pounding their goods the day after a night of eating and drinking too much. This is the fix your hangover is looking for. And we're thrilled to say the cadence of the joint, which puzzled us in our early days, is smooth and easy these days.
Dark horse legit restaurant? Serendipity of the year?
Tavern and Grocery. Some months ago, a last-minute change of plans led to a fortuitous Sunday night reservation at this subtle spot on W Main St. Several hours, one caviar service, and much food and drink later, the P+K crew exited crushing hard on everything T&G had to offer. A shapeshifter of the most traditional sort, this restaurant includes a speakeasy-inspired bar downstairs, a private room for big parties, and an excellent brunch menu on the weekends. We can’t wait to see what 2017 has in store for our T&G friends.
Restaurant you're dying to give a second chance?
Timbercreek Market. We went one night with giddy high hopes because the setup has all the trimmings for a really fun post - a local farm offering weekend popup style dinners in its adorable market in town. Alas, Chef Tucker Yoder was away that weekend, and sadly the experience and meal fell flat, so we tabled the review. We'll be back and, to be safe, will check ahead to make sure Tucker's running the show. The Chicken Liver Mousse Tart is more than enough reason to return.
Fry’s Spring Station. A favorite of ours thanks to its close proximity to one of our casas, Fry’s Spring is a true neighborhood hearth that has an excellent patio, delicious wood-fired pizza, a constantly revolving list of appetizers and specials, a great beer menu, and friendly, fast service.
Feast! never disappoints when it comes to fast, healthy dining and "buy local" grocery shopping. We love that they post their daily lunch specials on their website and social media accounts -- many a virtuously packed lunch of leftovers has been left in the fridge thanks to their promotions.
Grab and go?
At least once a week, usually Taco Tuesday nights, we drop in on Barbie's Burrito Barn for takeout. The no frills and cheap fare, loaded with fresh ingredients, is utterly addictive. Our kids dig on the tacos and burritos, while we are all over the Guac Tostada and Chopped Bowl. Barbie's slow-cooked pork and chicken are the perfect dose of love on a weeknight, and now that she's open Saturdays, a fantastic sate for your fast food craving that won't leave you feeling guilty. Plus, Barbie is funny and sweet and just downright good company while you wait for her to work magic on your order.
Spots you have your eye on for 2017?
In the P+K works is a piece on Public Fish & Oyster. Then maybe Southern Crescent. We've tried Doma and think something’s going on there, so maybe pen hits paper on that joint. And it’s high time we get over to Sultan Kabob to get in on what Simon recently shared - we're very intrigued. Lastly, we need to spend more time at Keevil & Keevil. We've stopped by in this new grocery's early stages and have always admired Harrison’s dedication to advancing the local food movement here. It’s pretty inspiring.
And then there's Tavola, and the bar behind it. Frequently acknowledged as some of the best Italian cuisine in Charlottesville, this past year they hosted a chef’s exchange program of sorts with their sister restaurant in Italy. As they don’t take reservations and parking in Belmont is never a treat, the P+K gang has yet to venture through Tavola’s doors. More generally speaking, P+K has yet to venture very far in Belmont at all, aside from Lampo and Keevil & Keevil at the very outskirts. Between local favorites Mas, Tavola, and a couple of other new spots popping up, Belmont will definitely be a focus for us come the new year.
Looking a bit further north, the P+K crew have long frequented Parallel 38 in Stonefield for their Mediterranean small plates and binder sized by-the-glass wine list. Co-owner Justin Ross quietly ranks as one of the most talented and decorated food & wine personalities in town. Incidentally, also one of the most genuinely hospitable and welcoming dudes in the business.
Wishes for 2017?
- Rumors about the Lampo crew opening a steakhouse to be true. Not to be a gossip agent, but the grapevine told us it was the old Brookville space, not Bank of America building. Who cares? Bring it, guys!
- For existing restaurants to get more ballsy with their menus, service and vibe and for new ones to open with teeth out of the gate. We’ve been impressed with the authentic grit being expressed in menus and hope it’s a trend that continues.
- More chef collaboration dinners like the English Holiday Dinner at Oakhart Social - three bad ass cats with zero fucks to give having a blast in the kitchen. More of this please!
- Will wishes his blog partners would let him use more filthy language in some of these pieces. It’s hard wearing this PG rated mask all the time! (Just ask Ben Folds.) (Editor's note: Will, see bullet above. You're fucking welcome!)
- More food scribes to emerge. This town is hungry for food content to keep pace with the culinary moves and shakes. In this big collaborative community of Cville there is always room for more good stuff!
- More Fleurie flight clubs. The first and only one (thus far) featured only French and Spanish wines -- we’re ready for some more geopolitical viticultural battles!
- We wish with all our hearts that the rumor of Sheetz coming to The Corner is not true.
- A better brunch spot. We’ve had a couple spontaneous brunch successes at a smattering of random restaurants, but one has yet to emerge as the brunch spot. I want to wake up craving a bloody mary that we can only find at _____________ (fill in the blank.)
- Is it too much to ask that the Landmark hotel finally be turned into something other than a complete and utter blight on the entire downtown area? How is it that 2016 has claimed the lives of so many, and yet the weathered skeleton of that place continues to hang on? We can't say we would mind rooftop dining overlooking the mall one day…
Any remarkable insights or lessons learned so far in your brief stint on this blog?
Will: In her last piece as food editor for the Washington City Paper (before she took the wheel at The Washingtonian), Jessica Sidman brought readers behind the curtain on the life of a food writer. My favorite observation: "The things food writers like to complain about make them sound like assholes." That self-awareness resonates with me. There’s a duality about this venture that I struggle with regularly. Some days I do feel like an asshole for ever embarking on the endeavor because to wear the hat of critic intimates judgment, and I’m not totally comfortable with the concept of judging others’ livelihoods and writing about it.
That said, as we continue to evolve the identity of P+K, I wish we could find the right tone for doling out constructive criticism without worrying about ruffled feathers, because the litany of pats on the back lacks a certain credibility I'm accustomed to in good food writing (looking at you, Tom Sietsema). It’s a perpetual debate among our crew with each review - to blog or not to blog about less-than-meh components of any experience. Over the years, here and in DC, our industry friends have expressed a genuine craving for honest feedback because it keeps them tuned in and challenges them to retain their edge. I heard about a now dormant food blog (Mas to Millers) catching public hell from a local chef for being honest about a bad string of dinners. I also read and get Simon's philosophy on complaining. There has to be some middle ground here. I totally subscribe to the concept of restaurateurs promoting each other for the collective good of the town's food reputation and have said many times that I love that sense of community. By the way, I have no interest whatsoever in bashing restaurants. At the same time, if Charlottesville wants to spike the ball in the end zone of the bigger culinary arena, it might need to develop an appetite for occasionally raw writing and dispense with some provincial sensitivities.
A few eggs will certainly be broken as we work on that omelette, but here's hoping the recipe develops and skins are thick enough around here to accept shades of bitter blended with the sweet.
Anika: There are days we feel inspired and days that we do not. And, slowly, we've learned that that’s ok. Between work and life and catching a breath, the weeks slip by and drafts sometimes stagnate in our Google Docs folder. But then, somehow, it all comes together in a quick rush of final edits, photo selection, “ok we’re live!” texts and social media promos with as many #instafoodworthy hashtags as we can think of. It may not be the best - or most timely - process, but it works for us.
When we started this blog, I thought we were writing for others, for an audience, for whoever wanted to come visit our little space in the vast and oversaturated blogosphere. Not even a year later and it’s quickly become clear to me how wrong my initial notion was. First and foremost, I've learned that we write for ourselves and for each other. This blog has created a safe space for us to rant and rave and love and joke about things far beyond what we cover in our posts. It sparks group texts that make Monday afternoons bearable. It brings the four of us together almost weekly, and as much as we focus on the editorial and our vision, we also just genuinely enjoy each other's company. Since our P+K journey began, living intentionally has become a habit rather than a goal. I couldn't have asked for more from the year 2016.