College Town Tours: The Best of Charlottesville, VA

Oh, Charlottesville. This quaint college town in Central Virginia has a lot of things going for it. Home to Thomas Jefferson and his University of Virginia (no student will let you forget the association), Charlottesville has a wildly diverse and progressive community. And the food community is no exception. Situated near a hub of the slow food revolution, with Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (of Food Inc., and Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), both Charlottesville residents and University students have good food on the mind. Charlottesville has its fair share of good eats, at one point even having more restaurants per capita than New York City, if you can believe it. Most restaurants are concentrated in two areas: the local resident-heavy Downtown Mall and the University-centric “Corner.” Combined with the active city farmers market and thriving local shops, there is not a shortage of food or culture.

I have a particular point of view on Charlottesville and the University, having both grown up there and attended UVA.  Now, I hesitate to consider myself an expert on anything… Sure, I can tell you way more than you want to know about the architectural history of the Museum of Modern Art. But after living in Charlottesville for over fifteen years as both “townie” and student, I may have earned the “expert” title on the Charlottesville food scene. For those who are lucky enough to call Charlottesville their home, whether it be for a few short years, months, or days, here is a guide to the food and culture of this vibrant college town.

Disclaimer: Any attempt to create a comprehensive list of hot Charlottesville spots would only lead to controversy. This list is only a sampling of all that Charlottesville has to offer!

**SKC Picks**

Best Place To Get Free Food
Final Fridays at the Art Museum
UVA Art Museum | 155 Rugby Road

The quest for free food unites college students on campuses across the country. But not all free food events offer the classy and culturally rich experience of the UVA Art Museum’s Final Fridays Receptions! As a co-organizer and loyal museum volunteer, I am partial to the homemade catering that the group of students and feisty board members put together. Tables are always full with rotating platters of cheeses, crackers, vegetables, fruit, and cookies. Crowd favorites include the classic baked brie, topped with seasonal fruit spreads or honey, and the seven layer dip, our pièce de résistance served on a 28” circular platter. If tasty cheese and dips aren’t your thing (you may want to rethink your dietary choices, but that’s not the point), then these words may convince you: free beer and wine. All ID-carrying students are granted drink tickets upon entry. While you sip on your wine and get yet another serving of gouda, please look around at the amazing surroundings. Some beautiful and thought provoking art graces the walls of the Museum, giving it a leg up on any free pizza night.

Best Brunch
Blue Grass Grill & Bakery
313 Second Street. SE | 434.295.9700

Tucked away off the Downtown Mall, this homey breakfast joint is known for its gigantic biscuits and long lines. Once you do land a table, you’ll be glad you waited! Located Off-Grounds in the heart of Charlottesville, Blue Grass Grill is always filled with a good mix of students and locals looking for plates full of Southern goodness. The menu is versatile, with plenty of options for vegetarians and bacon-aholics alike (if you like a super sweet morning treat try their chocolate covered bacon!). My friends and I regularly visited Bluegrass to refuel on Friday or Saturday mornings after a late night, and the leisurely walk back to Grounds is a great cure for a hangover or full stomach.
Must order: Hungry Norman, Black Bean Breakfast Burrito, Biscuits (take them to go)

Best Parents Weekend Restaurant
201 East Main Street

As a Charlottesville-native, I have the best of both the local and student experience when it comes to parents weekend. Zocalo is a family favorite where we often celebrate birthdays, out-of-town guests, and yes, even some parents weekends. When dinner is on the parentals, whether they live across town or across the country, Zocalo is a special treat. The Spanish-fusion menu is sure to please any palate–how can you go wrong with polenta fries?! The spacious patio seating makes it the perfect place to soak up the rich Charlottesville culture on the Downtown Mall and do some valuable people watching.
Must order: polenta fries, salmon
Other Parents Weekend Picks: Bizou, C&O, Hamiltons, Mas

Best Bagel
Bodo’s Bagels
1418 Emmet Street | 505 Preston Avenue | 1609 University Avenue

Bodo’s is, simply put, a Charlottesville legend. With three spots spread around town, including one conveniently on the Corner, they serve up some of the freshest and cheapest (!) meals around. But this isn’t just a bagels and schmear kind of place. Oh no, there is an art to crafting the perfect Bodo’s bagel. Having eaten my fair share in my years in Charlottesville (when finishing my thesis, I swore if I ate one more bagel I would turn into one), my friends and I have created a simple equation: One part salty and/or savory, one part sweet, and one part rich. For example, cinnamon raisin bagel (sweet) with chicken salad (rich), cheddar, lettuce, and dijon (savory/salty/spicy). This sandwich will set you back a whopping $3.50. Anyone who has lived in Charlottesville will tell you this is one of their first stops on visits back!
Must order: Cleo salad, whole wheat bagel, chicken salad, herb cream cheese.

Best Coffee Shop
Oh, the coffee shop. This is yet another moment when my townie sensibility clouds my judgment as a student: thus I will present two options!

Para Coffee
19 Elliewood Avenue

Para Coffee provides the quintessential college coffee shop experience with friendly baristas, comfy couches, and a “buy 9 get the 10th free” regulars card! Located on the Corner, it’s a great place to have a quick meeting, long catch up sessions, write a paper, or just grab a cup to go. The coffee is locally roasted by Shenandoah Joe’s Coffee, making it more flavorful and pro-local business. Make sure to pick up a good old cup of coffee, and go on Wednesday for cupcakes!

213 West Main Street
Mudhouse has been a Charlottesville institution since the mid-1990s, serving up rich coffee with character for the last fifteen years. With the main outpost on the Downtown Mall, and stands all over town, it’s easy to get a quick coffee before strolling on the mall or hitting the road. Mudhouse’s atmosphere epitomizes Charlottesville eclectic culture, with a cast of regulars who can be found playing chess, frantically typing on their laptops, or engaging in a deep existential conversation. The owners and baristas are really knowledgeable about their coffee craft, and the proof is in the cup.

Best Off-Grounds Excursion
Starr Hill Brewery
5391 Three Notched Road, Crozet, Va | 434.823.5671

Crisp fall and sweet spring days beg for long drives through the countryside surrounding Charlottesville! Any good roadtrip needs a destination, and Starr Hill Brewery is a great one. Just 25 minutes outside of Charlottesville, the local brewery serves up a variety of award winning beers that cater to all palates. Tastings are free, but chances are you’ll walk out with a six-pack of your new favorite beer. If you’re a beer aficionado, or just looking to learn a bit more about this college staple, Starr Hill offers tours of the brewery that actually make the excursion educational (extra credit?). But you don’t have to drive to the brewery for this local favorite, because Starr Hill regular and seasonal brews can be purchased in all grocery stores and on tap at most local bars and restaurants.
Must Order: The Love, Jomo, Festie, Lucy
Other Nearby Destinations: Crozet Pizza, King Family Vineyards, Afton Mountain Vineyards

Best Bar Downtown
109 West Main Street

Miller’s has all the makings of a great bar: large outdoor patio, central location (Downtown Mall), a solid selection of beers, great music, and a history to boot! If you’re a Dave fanatic (that’s Dave Matthews to those non-Dave fans), you’ve probably heard the stories of his humble beginnings working as a waiter and performer at this joint. In addition, local jazz ensembles gather every Thursday for jam sessions that are a relaxing (and mature) way to kick off an early weekend. With a mixed crowd, there’s a good chance you might run into your TA, or even (if you’re lucky?) your professor who is also just looking for a cold beer to help forget that day’s lecture.

Best Bar on the Corner
The Virginian
1521 University Avenue

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in the case of The Virginian the name says it all. The Virginian is the place to see all UVA and general college stereotypes in action. Nightly, there is a crowd of co-eds living up to the University’s “work hard, play hard” motto. On Sundays scores of fourth years pack into the booths, sometimes with their backpacks, to enjoy all the drink specials, which sometimes means getting a nice buzz before heading back to work on that 15-page paper due the next morning. This is also the place to be if you’re looking to get your ‘90s music fix, complete with sing-a-long and table dancing before last call. It’s also pretty much a given that “Wagon Wheel” will play at least once every night. Like I said, it is called The Virginian…

Best Bar to Transition to Post-Grad Life
Michael’s Bistro
1427 University Ave | 434.977.3697

Not every night out should lead to table dancing, and Michael’s Bistro is the ideal spot for an alternative experience. On a typical night at Michael’s you can sit in a cozy booth or on the balcony overlooking the Corner (Michael’s is located above Little John’s with great people watching views), to enjoy a good craft beer, some smooth jazz, and a vibe that actually encourages intellectually stimulating conversations. While the drinks are a little pricier by the Corner standards, they are served in glasses at all hours (always classy). Looking for a new date-night place? Michael’s is great because you can actually hear yourself speak and the atmosphere inches closer to post-grad life.

Best Pizza
Blue Mountain Brewery
9519 Critzers Shop Road, Afton, Va | 540.456.8090

This may stir some controversy among Charlottesvillians and Wahoos, for there is quite a selection of delicious pizza in the area. But in terms of overall experience (food+drink+atmosphere/environment), Blue Mountain Brewery stands out. While not strictly within the Charlottesville City limits, it is well worth the hour-long journey into adjacent Nelson County. It doesn’t get much better than sitting on the patio with friends on a sunny weekend, looking out at the beautiful rolling Virginia hills, while munching on crispy pizza with a pint of fresh brewed beer. Pizza toppings range from vegetarian-centric Mediterranean-themed to carnivorous-heavy apple sausage, and the pie sizes are large enough to split with at least one person, thus ideal for sharing and groups. The beer list is thorough and varied to cater to most preferences, and they even offer a sampler for beer aficionados or the indecisive. If you’ve got a free afternoon and a car (or friends with one), hit the road—pizza and beer await!

Best Sandwich for Lunch for the Lawn or Library
Take It Away Sandwich Shop
115 Ellieword Avenue | 434.295.1899

Each Charlottesville sandwich shop has a unique spin or ingredient that keeps students and townies coming back. At Take It Away it’s the House Dressing. This tangy, creamy dressing is the perfect addition to any of the endless combinations of sandwiches. I’m a partial to the chicken salad (my go-to for pretty much any sandwich), with crunchy cucumber, sprouts, cheddar, and spicy mustard. And a side of House. Those who require iceberg lettuce and beefsteak tomatoes on their sandwiches be warned—Take It Away’s toppings list is missing these two deli staples. But the other tasty options, including roasted cherry tomatoes, cheeses and watercress, more than make up for the loss. To really fit in with the scores of students who grab these sandwiches for lunch on the Lawn or in the library, throw in a bag of Route 66 chips and a can of Arizona Arnold Palmer to complete the meal!

Best Late Night Sandwich
Little John’s
1427 University Ave | 434.977.0588

Late night snacks come in all shapes and sizes, but most UVA students will rank Little John’s New York Deli as their top choice. Open 24hrs, Little John’s is located on the Corner, sandwiched (get it?) between other popular bars and restaurants, making it convenient at any time of day (or night). Don’t be scared by the long lines right after last call, the talented staff at Little John’s is ridiculously efficient in getting everyone fed (plus the conversations I’ve overheard in the late night LJ’s line are priceless). Take It Away has House Dressing, but Little John’s has a toaster. Most of their creatively-composed (and named) sandwiches take a ride in the toaster before being placed next to a bed of crispy chips. “Some” have even been known to sneak their sandwich into The Virginian when they get a craving…
Must order: Pepper-Parmesan, Mojo Chicken, the Chris Long

Best Picnic Classic Sandwich
Bellair Market
2401 Ivy Road | 434.971.6608

A gas station is probably the last place you’d expect to find contenders for most delicious sandwich, but hey, Charlottesville is full of surprises. While you fill up your tank, do your stomach a favor and stop into the Bellair Market for one of their signature sandwiches. Each of these gourmet creations, with locally themed names, is perfectly balanced in both texture and flavor. The Ednam pairs crusty French bread with sweet turkey, creamy avocado, salty bacon and havarti for a kick! Though I don’t usually recommend substitutions/additions with specialty items, my perfectionist tendencies got the best of me during my last visit. The addition of white cheddar cheese and whole-wheat ciabatta put my go-to Crozet (chicken salad, cranberry relish, Dijon) over the top. If the sandwiches don’t keep you coming back for more, the “$5.00 for five” sandwich card certainly will!
Must order: Crozet, Ednam, Whitehall

Best Bakery
Albemarle Baking Company
418 West Main Street | 434. 293.6456

Not everyone would consider a good local bakery a critical component of the college experience. Those people did not have Albemarle Baking Company to supply their college town with decadent baked goods. Albemarle Baking Company, or ABC, is a staple to most students’ diets, though they may not know it, as the bakery distributes its treats to a variety of local coffee shops, restaurants, and grocers. Located in Main Street Market (lots of other goodies there, more on that later), the bakery serves up everything from crusty and hearty loaves of bread and rolls, pastries, and cookies. Oh—and princess cake. The rich but light, nutty and sweet layers of cake are enveloped in a layer of marzipan and topped with powdered sugar and a marzipan rose, making it a must for any princesses’ birthday (hence the name). Although ABC caters primarily to the non-student residents, as does its fellow Main Street Market neighbors, it is making its way onto students’ radar. Did I mention princess cake?
Must Order: Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffin, Seeded Roll, Princess Cake

Best Late-Night Excursion When Bars Close / Historic Monument
The Lawn/Academical Village

Surprised to see the best late night excursion and historic monument combined into one category? When Thomas Jefferson founded the University in 1819, the Academical Village (yes academical is a word) and the Lawn were the literal and physical center of the school. As an institution steeped in tradition, the Lawn is still the heart of the University. Day AND night. On any given afternoon, you’re likely to spot students walking to class, tossing a Frisbee, or reading on the vast green space. On any given night, you’re likely to spot crowds of students gathered at the steps of the Rotunda to watch their peers streak the Lawn in the tradition of generations. The Academical Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, serves many practical and symbolic roles at the University, such as housing accomplished faculty and students, and as the location of both convocation and graduation.

Best On-Grounds Dining
Fine Arts Café
Campbell Hall

Within the large University grounds, there are concentrated areas of both academic and “culinary” activity. Most students frequent the dining options closest to Central Grounds, including one large dining hall and a few University-operated cafes. But tucked away in the Arts Grounds is the Fine Arts Café, the crème de la crème of University dining. With its sustainably minded regulars from the Architecture School, Art/Art History and Drama departments, the Fine Arts Café uses local ingredients and some bold flavors to produce some of the best- and tastiest-kept secrets. The menu is super vegetarian friendly, with items, like the black bean quesadilla or noodle bowl, that are simple to customize with or without meat. Nearly all the items are made to order, which can sometimes lengthen the wait and the line (particularly in between classes and around noon). Still in its infancy (its only been open for three years), the café is settling in and expanding to accommodate its popularity among the arts students and greater University community alike.
Must order: Black bean quesadilla, fried zucchini, veggie and hummus wrap, sweet potato fries.

Best Fall Food Activity
Carter Mountain Orchard
1435 Carters Mountain Trail | 434.977.1833

Fall in Charlottesville is stunning and Carter Mountain offers one of the most delicious ways to enjoy the town’s autumnal splendor—with spectacular views and apples! Head up to Carters Mountain on a crisp day in October to wander through the cascading rows of apples. But the trip offers more than just fresh apples (though the pounds of sweet apples are well worth the short, but bumpy drive): from the top of the mountain you can see for miles. Beyond the views, the store and café sell a variety of apple-centric items like apple cider, apple cider donuts, apple butter, apple pie…you get the idea.
Must order: Besides fresh apples…apple cider donuts and slushies.

Best ALL-in-One
Main Street Market
428 West Main Street

The Main Street Market is home to some of Charlottesville’s gourmet and specialty food shops, including Albemarle Baking Company, Gearhart’s Chocolates, Seafood @ West Main, and Feast! I spent my high school years attempting to feel like a grown up by “lunching” at Feast! with my money from babysitting. For the first year or so of college, Feast! was my little townie secret that I enjoyed with my friends. Slowly but surely, word has spread about this adorable little grocer that makes crazy yummy sandwiches. Personally, I’m a sucker for sandwiches and Feast! offers it all. The chicken, cheddar and fig, and the ham, goat cheese and plum paninis reach that blissful balance of sweet, salty and rich, while the Local Panini lets the local veggies simply do their thang. But please don’t limit yourself to the sandwiches. While you wait for your lunch, take the time to wander the store and sample the assortment of local and gourmet cheeses, candies, meats and dips. The staff behind the cheese counter is friendly and uber knowledgeable (Saveur named them one of the top twenty cheese shops in the country!), and more than happy to help. After enjoying your sandwich, take a stroll around the market to see some of Charlottesville’s best at work.
Must order: Chicken, cheddar, and fig Panini, Chicken Salad Melt, The Local Panini, Green Goddess dressing.

Other local favorites that I might be scorned for not mentioning: Christian’s Pizza, Marco & Luca Dumpling Shop, Spudnuts Donuts, The Local, Boylan Heights, The Biltmore Bar & Grill, The Backyard, Mas, Revolutionary Soup, Chaps Ice Cream, Hot Cakes, Sticks Kebob Shop

Juliana Barton is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia whose passion for Charlottesville runs deep. Despite living in foodie-centric New York, she craves Bodo’s Bagels, Mudhouse coffee, and Fine Arts Cafe black bean quesadillas on a regular basis. Read more…

Originally posted on Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

3 Responses to “College Town Tours: The Best of Charlottesville, VA”

  1. percentblog

    October 6th, 2011

    As someone who traveled to many many colleges and towns in Virginia, Bodo’s Bagels are the best bagels in Virginia, hands down.

  2. Leslie

    October 7th, 2011

    I agree about Bodos. After graduating from UVA, I moved up to DC and I miss Bodos every day (even after years). All the restaurants here are great. Good choices!

  3. Jule

    February 26th, 2013

    Greetings! Great article! I was wondering if you could tell me what your favorite roads to drive were in and around Charlottesville. (I’d love 2 see old farms and white picket fences and rolling fields) We are visiting in June 2013 and I’ve been trying to look at google maps. So far I’ve seen some pretty roads (Garth Road)…was one I remember. A friend who had visited Virginia told me Plank Road towards Batesville was very pretty. We are going to tour UVA and don’t have to many days to spend there. I was hoping a could have a small list of MUST DRIVE DOWN beautiful Virginia country roads. If you could name a few I would so appreciate it! Thanks!

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