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Best Charlottesville Restaurants 2011 – Part 2 of 2.

Hence the golden flatware. In my last installment I waxed poetic on 8 major categories and now I’m back to finish the job. As stated previously, take these winners as you will. I’m only a humble food writer, and everyone has their opinion – that’s what makes this fun. Congratulations to ALL the winners, and here’s to many more good eats in 2012, starting with Charlottesville’s Restaurant Week January 23 – 29, 2012. I’ve made my reservations. Have you?

It’s rare, more like never, that I crave a salad. But EPPIE’S has changed all that. Their Santa Monica Salad is a veggie DREAM with the perfect complement of salt, sweet, tangy, crunchy healthy yummies. Baby spinach leaves, grape tomatoes, chopped dates, corn, goat cheese, and champagne vinaigrette. Sounds kinda like a song, doesn’t it? Served with homemade pumpkin bread, which feels like cheating but isn’t, and you’ve got yourself a gourmet lunch. Get the half portion which is PLENTY for $4 and change and you’ve got yourselves a CHEAP gourmet lunch.
Runner’s Up: The salad bar at BLUE RIDGE COUNTRY STORE, and the Beet Salad at BIZOU.

This will be an odd choice for most, and the “local roasters only” contingent will be up in arms, but I’m in LOVE with the lattes at SPLENDORA’S GELATO (or “The Splen”). Lavazza Italian espresso perfectly brewed every time. I’m sorry guys, but go to Italy. These guys know how to brew a fucking espresso. The other guys? It all tastes like milk to me. And Miz Patricia just happens to be a stellar pastry chef on top of her mad gelato skills, so if you’re lucky, you might be able to pair your latte with a chocolate shortbread. Died and gone to heaven? That’ll be you, the one sitting in the corner with the look of ecstasy on your face. Guaran-damn-teed.

EPPIE’S. Not only because everything is so reasonably priced, but because their menu is variety-full. Want a salad? They’ve got it. Jerk chicken? Bingo. How about some pasta or a sandwich or soup? Yep, it’s there. The daily specials would make any “meat and three sides” cook green with envy. Chicken and dumplings, tamales, chili. I look forward to Thursdays just so I can sink my teeth into their turkey meatloaf. Peppery and divine. Just a few of the many reasons any out of town visitors I have beg me to take them back to EPPIE’S. Or maybe it’s those ham biscuits on pumpkin bread.

The behemoth at BROOKVILLE RESTAURANT. I love it. I adore it. I lie awake at night thinking about food (doesn’t everyone?) and I crave it. Yes it’s $22. Yes it’s a ½ pound of beef. But I only eat burgers once a month (if that), so when I do, I want it to be the best. Damn good. Dripping down your arm and full of fat. The patty is a mixture of hangar, sirloin, and bacon, topped with caramelized onions, and a fried egg on a house-made bun. If there is a better burger out there I don’t know it. Finish it off with a slice of homemade cheddar apple pie and you won’t need to eat for a year!
Runner-Up: The patty melt at TIMBERWOOD GRILL (yep, apples and oranges, but the next closest contender nevertheless)

I’ve been grousing for YEARS about the lack of house-made, imaginative desserts in Cville. While there has been some noticeable improvement, I wouldn’t say every establishment is off the Sysco bandwagon. Thank the Lord for Tucker Yoder at THE CLIFTON INN. Back in November, I tasted the first truly innovative and lip-smacking dessert creation I’ve had since we moved here. A deconstructed carrot cake dessert that not only included actual carrots, but goat cheese. It was tasty, and just this side of sweet. Another millimeter and it would’ve been savory. A real dessert revelation, and I don’t use that term lightly. I’ve not forgotten it, and dream of the day when I can have it again. Purdy please?
Runner-Up: Deep-fried cookie dough at WEST MAIN RESTAURANT

Too many places to pick! Cville has an all-mighty plethora of drinking holes serving up libations when the 5pm hour rolls around. For me, the winner is the place with BOURBON FLIGHT WEDNESDAYS. AND deep-fried cookie dough.WEST MAIN RESTAURANT is the perfect drop-by-after-work-space because not only is it big enough you’re seated right away, it’s got a great greasy bar menu and bourbon flights. Did I mention the bourbon flights? A more beautiful pair of words cannot be found. And a perfect end to what could’ve been a crappy work day.
Runner-Up: THE SHEBEEN PUB & BRAAI’S $2 rail drinks in the summer

I have to say after being the service curmudgeon for the first few years of this blog, I have seen an improvement. Not ironically, many of the restaurants are ones that made my “Best Of” list this year, or in years past. Many places are taking service seriously and it shows. There is still the occasional appetizer arriving before the wine situation, but I’m not nitpicky. Overall the picture isn’t as bleak, so kudos! The service award for 2011 goes to TAVOLA which on every occasion has consistently provided attentive service without being overly informal and never neglectful. To this old lady the bowl of reading glasses on the bar is a VERY nice touch, and earned them extra brownie points.

ORZO KITCHEN & WINE BAR. New Chef Bryan Szeliga who hails from Portland, Oregon is a sustainable seafood advocate and has been whipping up magic from the world’s oceans in Orzo’s kitchen for a few months now. Szeliga is doing some exciting things, like house-smoking salmon and ramping up flavors in dishes like Shrimp Scampi pasta. Definitely one to look out for in 2012, and I can’t wait to see what they have on offer for Restaurant Week!

One food item Charlottesville does NOT lack is its huge variety of champions for local, sustainable cuisine. Whether producers, purveyors, bloggers, or diners, Charlottesville loves its food, and it’s got plenty of celebrities with strong opinions that crow about it.

The Local Food Hero Award is a new one, awarded to the person I feel champions Charlottesville food the most right now in whatever realm they dance, whether the farm, the restaurant, the store, the cause, or the written page.

TOMAS RAHAL OF MAS TAPAS is the 2011 winner. Recently, Chef Rahal posted a note on Facebook, lamenting the unawareness of some diners who simply don’t understand what it takes to run a restaurant. They act as experts. When one tiny thing doesn’t go according to plan, they go off and write a half-ass* blog about what a terrible experience they had, not realizing the real WORK scores of people put forth in order to create your dining experience.

I’m paraphrasing of course. But of all the local food news slash writing I read this year, this one struck a deep chord. He’s absolutely right. Tomas is known for his outspoken views, his adoration of Spanish cuisine, and he’s a damn fine writer in addition to his cheffing talents. His blog about the trip he took to Spain is lyrical, poignant, pointed, and full of the kind of foodporn I long to create.

A chef and a writer? Maybe I should just step aside. His post reminded me bluntly and cleanly, like a cleaver, that food writing entails a hell of a lot of responsibility. I thank him for having the balls to call all of us out on our shit. For all these reasons, I honor Tomas Rahal with this first-ever award. Because it’s easy to champion Charlottesville food. But it’s damn hard to do it when you might alienate your customers, endangering your livelihood. And I respect the hell out of him for that.

There they are folks. My best for 2011. Agree? Disagree? Let the flaming begin ;0)

*My Momma used half-ass often, and effectively to get her point across. I believe Chef Rahal would respect my use of it here.

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