The lush sound of old Memphis blues saunters from a turntable across the room to a pair of battered leather chairs where we lounge with cocktails and contemplate a plan for this young Friday night. Smartly dressed cats pepper the lounge around us, their cocktail hour chatter reaching a friendly din not quite rowdy enough to stifle our breezy thoughts. Backdropping the scene is a wall adorned with various pieces of original artwork -- a shiny, happy collage of inspiration and whimsy. The air is charged with a mischievous energy that punctuates the start of every weekend. ‘Where to from here?’ The question is muttered again. Soon, the warm and fuzzy booze meshes with the grimy guitar licks in our heads and we smile wide at a familiar epiphany that hits us like deja vu -- we need no plans when we can let the whole night unfold right here at Common House.
Celebrating its one-year mark this month, Common House is Charlottesville’s avant-garde social club that satisfies our jones for the urbane. It’s a house party at some random, wealthy, eclectic friend of a friend of a friend in SOHO. In the subtext of the name dwells a playful irony because there’s absolutely nothing common about the space or the ride -- the style is totally unique to Charlottesville and the attitude just right. Set in a charming historic Vinegar Hill building and transformed into a Bohemian, Gatsby-esque hideout by founders Derek Sieg and Ben Pfinsgraff, CH is the antithesis of your father's crusty men’s club and way more progressive than any country club around.
To wit: Common House is skinny Paige denim, the rest are pleated khakis.
CH curates a diverse range of experiences that educate, inspire and widen cultural parameters in a space that’s totally jacked with creative energy and light. The spectrum includes blacksmithing classes, rooftop yoga, intimate live music sessions (think: Tiny Desk), art exhibits, women’s networking luncheons, readings by acclaimed writers, fashion shows, mixology classes, wine tastings, book club and whole animal butchery instruction. This litany just scratches the surface of a place we’ve come to see as a social innovation lab where nothing is off limits, except maybe an Eyes Wide Shut throw down.
Now we carve through the stylish crowd to the bar, where we are magically handed another round, and wait for our dinner guests to arrive. Earlier we put out a bat signal for some friends to join because we’re dying to expose them to the giddy crush we have on the food of newly-hired Chef Matt Greene.
Greene has a cult-type of street cred most locals know and love. It started five years ago when he opened the imitable JM Stock Provisions, an old-school butcher shop that stole this town’s heart with its gritty Brooklyn ways, un-ironic mustaches and (obvi) tattoos. Behind a greaser persona was the kindest meat whisperer who made a sometimes intimidating topic accessible and relatable. We’d never experienced his cooking, so when we heard about his move to Common House, our expectations were blind. We just loved that CH was spiking its punch with a brand like Greene’s. It was like accenting a Theory suit with a wallet chain -- we were intrigued AF.
Seated on the rooftop at the gloaming hour, we subtly rubberneck in all directions to take in the Blue Ridge vista and pretty people around us. Shadows crawl and cast early traces of night upon the scene as the horizon fades to a pink farewell glow. We’re already brimming with verve, then the sharpest service pro in the business approaches to greet and top us off with his charm.
Always dapper and perfectly postured, General Manager Joe Scala has a presence that draws our sharpened attention every time. Locals know him from his days of managing the upscale Fleurie and its bistro sister, Petits Pois. Maybe it’s the NYC, high-end industry backstory preceding him -- Thomas Keller’s Per Se, etc. -- but he wears on his sleeve a level of sophistication and polish that is scarce around here. None of which is to say he’s uppity -- he balances accessible with posh. And it’s encouraging to see how seriously he takes his craft, mentoring CH servers via thoughtful training sessions to reflect and execute on the same standards, always pressing the bar higher. In a town where the default for service tends to be casual, a quirk too often written off and forgiven, Scala’s approach is a passionate kiss at the end of a long dry spell.
Dishes start landing before us, carpet bomb style. Poker faces are on display around the table, as everyone tries to make the death grip on their fork not so obvious, the groans in their stomachs not so savage. Steak Tartare is first to be assaulted like Lord of the Flies – dry aged, perfectly seasoned, citrusy and so short for this world. Soon, sated momentarily by the bloody shot of protein, we regain our manners and pass the plates around. To cleanse our palates of raw meat, we throw back a round of Radishes, so fresh they had to be straight from the ground, garnished with salted butter and shaved baguette. The simple, healthy dish sends a jolt of goodness that momentarily pauses the hands of time on mortality. Then, feeling chesty, we dive straight from the self righteous perch into Chicken Liver Pate, a dark horse for the best in town and a dish that might drive you straight to a confessional post dinner. Really, would it surprise anyone that a former pro butcher could slay this dish, or the tartare for that matter? No, that’s why ordering both was a no-brainer for us fangirls and boys. A piece of Arctic Char -- skin crisp, flesh dense and dank, over a bed of roasted turnips, salted kale and a zesty carrot turmeric puree -- barely makes it around the table before an encore round is ordered and we all agree it’s dish of the year material. This did surprise us -- we get that Greene knows his way around four legged beasts, but to hit us in the mouth hard with a fish dish? We didn’t see it coming but were happily run over. To bookend, we decide not to sleep on the Bone-in New York Strip -- a dish that inspires naughty eye rolls and giant slugs of red.
Perfectly food and wine buzzed, smiles light up our table as CH booze specialist Michael Okusa educates us on the latest additions to his stash of amari. He knows well by now that we tend to drink our dessert, reads the table expertly and returns with a dealer's choice round from his collection. While we sip, the banter on the roof around us builds to a vibrant crescendo, filling our sails with a second wind that we ride into the night with plans to return much sooner than later.
Recs + Rants
New Metrics. The older you get, the more nuanced your life metrics become. Chatting up Greene, we stumbled upon a new benchmark that will hereby be applied to all future reviews. He is a wise cat and has reached an age where he considers deeply the biochemistry of cooking and seems to have developed something of a moral culinary compass. Now in his mid/late 30s, a guide star for him is one that dates back to his catering days: when people leave [a wedding] will they want to make love? We appreciate the hell out of a chef who looks out for our loins, or at least how we go into the night after dinner. So how does it translate? Simplicity, a reliance on fresh ingredients and a gentle hand with butter and cream might be the best answer. Greene has made an art of doing a lot with a little, and for us, that's a true litmus test of creativity.
Fluid AF. The menu, like everything at CH, is fluid and speaks to thoughtful design. Accommodating both individual eaters and those who are into more of a shared-plate format (we’re partial to the latter), it serves as a nimble culinary support system that enriches whatever direction you decide your night should take under the CH roof and beyond. In our case, collectively experiencing and engaging over the full spectrum of menu options is a cornerstone of an evening out together, and Greene’s lineup readily allows for just that. But we know by now not to fixate too hard on any dish because Greene's menu adheres to the intellectually curious spirit that drives CH, which is to say it evolves and changes regularly to keep diners on the edge of their seats.
Somm Game Strong. One of the most delightful personalities in the wine biz happens to direct the CH program as a side hustle. Erin Scala’s list is peppered with playful Virginia wines, adventurous Euro head turners, hard-to-come-by domestic oddities, and, like everything here, is meant to educate and enlighten. If you happen to dine on an evening she is prowling the room, try to chat her up – she’s so thoughtful and not remotely snobby about wine and clearly just loves talking about it. Did we mention she does a wine podcast, writes wine articles and owns a local wine store that’s about as hip and garage as they get? Her passion is contagious, so get you some!
We find Erin's prose, like her wine recs, to be intoxicating, so we'd be remiss if we didn't spike this jam with her take:
“The wine list is an irresistible, pleasure-seeking collection of all our favorite wines to drink: rare red and white Burgundy, extraordinary Côte Rotie, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, and new cult California wines by Scholium Project, Clos Saron, and Mount Eden. By the glass, we pour tasty values from around the globe. Whenever possible, we highlight local wines, beers, and spirits. And like the Common House space itself— which features solar panels, reclaimed wood, and refurbished antiques— the entire beverage program is put together with an eye towards sustainability.
The cocktail program on the Terrace is playful, like our “Pool Party” cocktail garnished with a mini floating beach ball. You’ll find more serious drinks at the Social Hall bar, most of which came from Michael Okusa’s unique imagination. For me, a highlight at the bar is the tasty selection of amari and vermouths, which Okusa has painstakingly collected over the last year.
But perhaps the coolest part about the Common House beverage program is that we regularly bring our drink list to life by inviting winemakers, spirit makers, brewers, and experts to share their stories with our members.”
Dress Code. Is anyone else just done with kitchens that overdress salads? Thanks to a horde of chefs who scarred us over the years, we've become those cats who religiously order dressing on the side. It always feels like the gutless play for some reason, and when we get that side it’s basically a Big Gulp, which begs the question – can that really be how much dressing they toss it with? Overdressing defeats the purpose and does no justice to the farm fresh vegetables. Don’t kitchens get that we ordered that salad because, gee, we might be vaguely health conscious? Let the ingredients shine. We love that you make a legit vinaigrette but don’t need to bathe in it. We’d rather see you balance a dish. That’s where it’s at.
At CH we found shelter from the oily storm and gladly order salads straight up with no fussy caveat. Greene’s compass is clearly at play in the salad forum – he lets the crisp texture of the vegetables stand out and generally steers clear of dairy. His creamy tofu dressing is gently tossed and comes off as more a zesty compliment to the vegetables. The toss is light and leaves us room to explore more corners of the menu with a little less guilt. Props!
Confessions. A rub on writing about a private club for a broad audience is the potential to come off as elitist, so if you did not make it this far, we get it. It’s worth admitting we bristled at media buzz ahead of the launch and wrote it off as another UVA watering hole with a higher cover charge. Then we gave it a shot and just fell hard for the space and creative energy that envelops you right away. Our food crush came way later -- for many months we were just in lust with the vibe. The concept of a pregame and nightcap option in our back pocket at a dope venue was the hook. At the end of the day, our game is to highlight the best dining experiences and single out the best talent in the industry, and we leave it with you to access it. Which brings us to...
The Hack. If you’re not a member, don’t sweat that one bit. Just dial up the concierge and express interest in learning more about CH. That’s all it will take to open sesame for at least one feast. They may revoke our access for this, but how will they know if your ‘interest in exploring membership’ is genuine and bonafide? It’s totally legit for any potential member to test drive the food and drink game, so you can absolutely hit this one without the rigmarole of joining if you just want to try out a unique experience in town. Or, get out your rolodex and hit up friends or friends of friends you haven’t seen in awhile. Chances are good that one of them is a CH member, and guests are always welcome.