When I was a student at the University of Virginia circa. 1995, I would not have called myself a “foodie” (the term hadn’t actually been coined yet), but the culinary delights of Charlottesville’s flourishing gourmet scene were already apparent in venues like The Blue Moon Diner and the C & O Restaurant. With the passage of time, Charlottesville’s “foodie” status has expanded and developed into a varied and exciting menu of delicious treats.
Charlottesville’s fine dining scene now contains a dazzling array of options, many independently owned and featuring locally-sourced ingredients. In Charlottesville, farm-to-table is not just a trend – it’s the standard. The dining landscape is in no sense repetitive, and the stunning features of Charlottesville’s cuisine are the immense creativity and variety of offerings.
Proximity to farms, vineyards, and dairies influences the restaurant scene with excellent local produce, meat, fish, dairy, grains, and other artisan food products, many of which are only available in Virginia. The combination of fresh, quality ingredients and talented chefs has allowed Charlottesville to dazzle internationally with a stunning array of culinary choices.
It would be nearly impossible to list all the worthwhile dining options in Charlottesville, but some stand out for their consistency, endurance, and sheer brilliance. Start your tour of the tastes with the following suggestions.
Located right next door to The Local, Tavola is known for its exceptional rustic locavore Italian cuisine. This cozy restaurant in the fashionable Belmont neighborhood features a menu that celebrates and elevates local cheesemakers, breadmakers, and other agricultural vendors to highlight their unique talents and quality offerings. The Pappardelle Bolognese is a simply perfect dish made with eggy homemade pasta and the finest local beef and pork. Other offerings include a tasty bucatini and meatballs and custom twists on seasonal pork ragu, a fantastic local burrata, and a diving melanzane alla parmigiana.
Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar
Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar specializes in perfectly rendered Mediterranean food at a cozy inside the Main Street Market. Their dishes play on a fusion of culinary traditions from Italy, Greece, Spain, and the South of France. In addition to serving delicious orzo, they also offer the area’s best branzino, great risotto, and satisfying international offerings like coca de trampó, a Mallorcan flatbread baked with roasted peppers and onions, local heirloom tomatoes, olive oil, and sea salt. They also offer one of the best wine lists in the city. Their farm-fresh salads sparkle, with offerings including seasonal fresh greens, chopped heirloom tomatoes, local peppers, candy onions, and local pasture-raised farm eggs in a stellar red wine vinaigrette. You won’t want to miss their truly lovely cheese plates.
A favorite among students, locals, and tourists alike, The Local stands out as a start of the Charlottesville culinary scene. The Local specializes in hearty and heartfelt versions of classic Appalachian dishes including the Berkshire pork chop, locally-reared meatloaf, crispy trout, local braised short ribs, and gnocchi bolognese. All produce, bread, meat, dairy, beer, and dessert are produced by local vendors and farmers for a fresh, flavorful punch of panache. Special mention is due to the seasonal Caromont goat cheese salad and the locally sourced Oak Farms chicken dishes served with upscale Southern sides. Unpretentious with a focus on locavore core, The Local is a must for every Charlottesville local.
Mas Tapas is the best place to enjoy tapas in Charlottesville, where they are renowned for their bacon-wrapped dates. With al fresco dining in seasonal weather, Mas is the place to enjoy fresh scallop ceviche, watermelon sandia, or chilled Chioggia beet soup with jicama-roasted corn salad and cilantro oil (yum). In addition to more authentic Spanish tapas offerings, you can also sample seafood and meat in creative combinations like oil-poached shrimp or chorizo deviled eggs. Innovative options include the duck bocato sandwich with pickled tomatillo and jicama-fennel slaw. Don’t forget to save some room for their creative takes on Southern desserts, including sugar tarts with grilled apricots.
Vivace is a Charlottesville classic, staying true to its original vision amidst trends with extraordinary success. All of their seasonal ravioli and anything dressed in their vodka-cream sauce are always sensational, always. The homestyle pizzas are also a treat – try the seasonal foraged morel and ramp pizza, the super-rich white pizza, and the classic, lush margarita pizza. A particular highlight is the beautifully executed regionally-informed local mushroom veloute with black truffles or braised local beef shortribs (cooked over an open flame!) with cavatelli pasta. Unique twists on classic Italian dishes make Vivace one of a kind, like the walnut-crusted mahi-mahi with local carrot and organic spinach risotto, apple mostarda, local micro greens, and shaved fennel. Take note to order the famous flourless chocolate Nutella torte made with local eggs.
Milan (+ Also Sister Restaurant Kanak)
Charlottesville’s best Indian food is also some of Virginia’s best. Milan Indian Cuisine has a popular lunch buffet and great tandoori dishes and serves as a great option for both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Regulars love the Palak Paneer (creamed spinach and cheese), the super-fluffy garlic naan, the chili chicken, the not-too-spicy achar (pickles), the perfect mango lassi, the Aloo Gobi (a combination of flavorful cauliflower and potatoes), and the Baigen Bahaar (tasty sweet n’ sour eggplant). They also make a difficult-to-find Indian dessert known as mango mousse, which is just as yummy as it sounds.
Milan’s newer sister restaurant, Kanak Indian Kitchen, is also very good and still something of a hidden gem in Merchant Walk Square. They feature a unique chukundari (beetroot) korma, as well as delectable samosas and khati rolls. The rechado prawns– much like the beautiful elephant murals outside the restaurant– are happily memorable. A standout dish is the Crab Baghara, a rich mustard-and-asafetida-tempered curry with chunks of fresh crab in a warming coconut tamarind sauce. This rare dish is a joyful find – and well-executed.
C&O Restaurant (Country French Fare)
The C&O Restaurant on the Downtown Mall is a cozy, rustic affair that has served the community for several generations. The restaurant, with its exposed brick and stained wood interior, has the warm aesthetics deserving of its upscale-but-not-quite-pretentious French country menu. Wonderful pasta and tender steak dishes accompany an impressive wine list that focuses on local varietals including the special C& O Viognier from Albemarle County, and the C& O Cabernet France produced at Monticello. Save room for a taste of their house Crème Brulée, executed with textbook finesse.
Himalayan Fusion is true to its name, fusing Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan cuisine into a wholesome pan-Himalayan smorgasbord. Several excellent vegetable curry options make this one of the best vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Charlottesville. The street-food-inspired chaats (aka snacks) include a tasty blend of chickpeas with diced red onions, tomatoes, and boiled potatoes drizzled with sweet & sour tamarind sauce, cilantro sauce, yogurt, mint, and crispy fried flour wafers. The samosas (vegetable or lamb) and Sekuwa (a popular Nepali bar snack consisting of flame-roasted spicy boneless chicken breast, lamb, or fish marinated in a ginger-garlic spice reduction) are also note-worthy. In addition to tandoori meats and a massive selection of curries, the restaurant also features an array of Tibetan specialties like chicken momos and authentic Himalayan egg chow mien that are hard to find in most other parts of the country.
Gearharts Fine Chocolates
Gearharts Fine Chocolates used to be in the Main Street Marketplace, but expanded to an open-concept factory and cafe on Ridge McIntire Road, next to Staples. They’ve added hot drinks and a roster of baked goods centering around their rich, decadent, handmade chocolate. The shop is a lovely place to enjoy a coffee, mocha, or drink chocolate while savoring one of their excellent chocolate confections or truffles. The Chocolate Flourless Torte is an obvious favorite, as is their Chocolate Buttermilk Cake. (Both are available whole or by the slice.) Chocolate from Gearharts is also THE quintessential Cville food souvenir, used as wedding gifts, graduation gifts, and hospitality gifts that celebrate Charlottesville. All chocolates are made fresh with local sweet cream and butter (no fillers, preservatives, or additives) and there’s SO much attention to detail that each piece is finished by hand. Helmed by Virginia’s premier chocolatier Tim Gearhart, the shop’s truffle assortments varies due to the seasonality of ingredients, with certain always-available classics ready to be savored.
Charlottesville’s rich and varied culinary landscape doesn’t end there! This is just a sample of places you might want to try as take a “tasty tour” of the area. Bon appétit!