One of our most reliable litmus tests for assessing a restaurant is to ask: Could we comfortably hide out here while a zombie apocalypse unravels outside?
Sitting at the top of our apocalyptic haven list is C&O Restaurant, an institution currently celebrating 40 uninterrupted years as one of Charlottesville’s most iconic dining and drinking destinations.
Akin to “The Winchester” in the Brit zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead (the go-to pub where the crew takes refuge as the undead overrun the town), C&O is more than a restaurant, it is a spiritual and structural comfort zone. Pre- or post-apocalypse, you’ll find us at the downstairs bar. Officially referred to as “the Bistro” and declared “one of the greatest rooms in America” (we don’t know who said this but we heartily agree), it will slay you even before you’ve lifted glass or fork.
Like a burly bear hug on a snowdrift night - or a seance that makes you feel you’re surrounded by friendly ghosts - the C&O bistro embraces you the moment you enter and sates you with perfectly curated playlists of lush tunes. Cocktail artist (and industry man crush) Anthony is typically behind the tunes and will gladly write on a napkin, in absolutely stunning penmanship, music recommendations. Our Spotify is loaded with some fantastic Anthony recs right now (Jason Molina and Naked Guns, to name a couple). He and the rest of the dialed-in crew make you feel like more than a guest in their home, they make you feel like this is exactly where you belong. Maybe that explains the tractor beam effect it has on us - inevitably when we go out, we always somehow end up downstairs at C&O.
Recs & Rants
Raise a glass. The cocktails are crafty and we’ll get to that, but the C&O has been setting cellar standards in Charlottesville since Gerald Ford was falling down in the White House. Developed for over 30 years by local food and beverage industry icon, Elaine Futhey, the wine program at C&O still today embodies the spirit and thoughtfulness conveyed by her once-handwritten lists. Take special care to seek out some of the more esoteric options - our theory is the more arcane brands or varietals must have been picked by the wine buyer for a reason. If they went out of their way to get it, so should you. Don't be afraid to flag down an expert - the staff will gladly help you expand your wine nerd horizons.
We have happily traveled the globe with the wine list, allowing ourselves to be taken to the Mosel with a noteworthy bottle of Hofgut Falkenstein Neidermenninger Sonnenberg Riesling, to southern Rhone with Eric Texier St. Julien en St. Alban, and to Tuscany with a Chianti from Tenuta di Arceno. The food has roots in French country fare and simply begs to be enjoyed with wine (in between bookend cocktails to start and finish the meal, of course).
Be a barfly. Apocalypse notwithstanding, the likes of Charles Bukowski would have loved the C&O’s downstairs hideout. The cocktails are crafted with deliberate love and grit and the bar hands seem capable of holding their own in a fist fight with a literary loose canon. We are partial to the Jota Jota (Bulleit bourbon, chili and coffee infused Campari, Carpano Antica vermouth), a jolting riff on a drink near and dear to us, the Boulevardier. We could see any Beatnik writer starting their day around 3pm with one of these before pecking away at a typewriter. For you less savage creatives, simply start your meal with one. As for the classics, we’ve never met a Sazerac we didn’t savor here. We prefer to let Anthony or Dustin choose the rye for us since the selection is so vast and not a single land mine in the field.
Break the rules. One of the many great things about bar dining - someday we will rant exclusively on this topic - is that you don’t need to order in order. You can graze the menu randomly and taste what jumps out at you or ask what your barman is digging. You might be open to sharing a Rag Mountain Trout entree with your date, following it up with a board of Charcuterie and side of Grilled Beets, devouring a Coupe Ellery dessert and then wrapping it all up with a Duck Confit Gnocchi. (For a recent birthday we dined at a local favorite and left feeling a bit empty of stomach and experience, so decided to hit the C&O for dessert and nightcaps. We ended up pairing those nightcaps with the Chocolate Bread Pudding and chased it all with an order of Duck Confit Gnocchi. We just can’t resist the siren call of this dish, we jones so hard for it.) Time and order matters not, and the barman is glad to roll with your impetuosity, pairing drinks or wine with each stage of your game. The bar is where you start dating the C&O, where you use the perch to get intimate and talk food, booze, music, literature, clothing and Cville food gossip with the charmer on the stick.
Go-to fare. These summer days we are digging the Porchetta Tonnato - a play on the classic vitello tonnato swapping in thinly sliced porchetta for veal. Make yourself a bite with all the components of the dish and you’ve got a taste bomb of pork fat, briny fish, bitter arugula and salty parmesan going off in your mouth. The Beef Carpaccio is a structured and refreshing blend of thinly sliced rare beef, arugula, truffled aioli and manchego on top of a crispy potato hash to give it an extra layer of fun.
Text us late night. Once upon a time, a boozy Saturday night with friends culminated with a 2 am “LET’S GET SOME FOOD!” battle cry. Quickly making their way to C&O, the crew settled in at a big table in the corner. A server came over with a genuine look of pity on her face. "Sorry ya’ll, kitchen just closed up for the evening." Then, a lightbulb. "Actually, we have some leftover cream of tomato soup and a bunch of pretzel rolls. Would that work?" To this date, one of the most memorable late-night meals ever eaten. And as diligent researchers, we’ve tried the late-night menu at varying stages of tipsiness and evening hour. We can report the Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup and Mac n Cheese are strong and satisfying hits. And who knew a topnotch Pulled Pork Taco was hiding out here?
Step into the light. The Bistro does not take reservations so you have to take what you can get when it comes to real estate. Given the choice, we gravitate toward the front wall’s Dutch door. If the weather is agreeable, the top half of the door is usually open, dispensing good light (natural or unnatural) and the nostalgic low rumble of the occasional passing train into the room. If a party of two, we vie for seats at the end of the bar or the two top adjacent to the door; if a party of four, we go for the four-top in the corner - it just doesn't get much cozier.
Miles of style. At first glance you could easily mistake the front of house as denizens of Brooklyn Heights thanks to the approachable hipster cool they radiate - a delightful mix that is more kind and sweet, not tragic and jaded. Clad in the dopest vintage gear (looking at you Sarah, Jenn, Dustin and Anthony), they evoke a style and playful swagger we find ourselves wanting to emulate. Read more about C&O style here.
Full Disclosure. We know owners Dean (chef) and Erin Maupin (pastry chef), though it wasn’t until after we’d already developed a severe crush on the C&O that we met them. Will & Rachel’s son and their daughter, who has a lovely dessert named after her on the menu, were in the same second grade class. This relationship has only added layers of good context to the lore of C&O. We don’t know anyone who enjoys a compliment less than Dean. Self depreciation is his jam, and it’s endearingly genuine. He eschews even the smallest crumb of praise and is vampire quick to direct all credit to the kitchen and front of house. He considers himself a steward of the C&O whose sole mission is to keep the train true and on track, but whether he wants to admit it or not, his fingerprints are on the C&O - an experience that continues to stand the test of time as one of Charlottesville's most iconic.
Even if the food was mediocre here (it emphatically is not), the level of service and personality would be enough to draw us in. After many rounds of ‘research’ we’ve decided that when we die (unless we end up roaming the streets in a pack of undead) we want to become resident ghosts who haunt the C&O bar every night and just disappear into the walls at closing time. That's how much we dig the vibe.
So whether you’re looking for an apocalyptic haven, a home away from home or a place that just makes you feel damn nostalgic for all that’s good and real in this world, make your way to the C&O downstairs. Once you land at the bottom of those wonderfully creaky steps, you'll pick up what we're putting down and fall willingly into its trance.