Written by Kurt Jacobson
Wander With Wonder
October 24, 2023
Charlottesville, VA, well known for its historic significance and home to the University of Virginia, is also a great foodie destination. Here are our picks for the best food in Charlottesville.
When my friends from our supper club moved to Charlottesville, VA, I knew there must be great food there. It took me a few months to reach out to Bill and Candice to get some intel on their new town, but soon after that conversation, I drove down for a taste.
I had never been to Charlottesville but knew it was full of history. Thomas Jefferson was enamored with the area, partly for the rich soil and excellent growing climate where many fruits and vegetables thrived. Jefferson was probably the first “foodie” president and also had a love of good wine. I attended the 11th annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in 2017 and could see where some of Charlottesville’s foodie roots began. I attended festival workshops on fermenting cabbage, making kombucha, and biscuit baking, which made me hungry to try the food trucks at the festival.
Thomas Jefferson experimented with growing crops and was a seed-saver as well. He kept detailed records that helped subsequent farmers grow successful crops. Small farms dot the Virginia landscape and total over 40,000. With all the great veggies, fruit, and meat produced by local farms, Charlottesville is one tasty place to visit.
The local bakery is one of the first foodie hotspots I seek in a new town. Imagine my delight in discovering three from-scratch bakeries in the downtown core in 2017! The first bakery I visited was The Pie Chest. This humble bakery cranks out some of the best savory pies I’ve had. I love the pecan pie and just about every savory pie they sell.
Sadly, the brick-and-mortar shop closed in March 2023, but Rachel Pennington, who used to be one of the co-owners of The Pie Chest, has been offering pies for special orders. Rachel also has plans to sell her pies at the former location, now a coffee shop, once a month. You can special order pies by emailing Rachel at email@example.com.
ABC, One of My Favorites
ABC stands for Albemarle Baking Company, or if you’re creative, another buttery croissant! I asked owner Gerry Newman how so many bakeries could thrive in Charlottesville, and he said, “We all do slightly different things. Frankly, if you set out to be the best you can be, as opposed to just trying to be better than how you perceive others, you will create a following for what you do.” By being in business since 1995, I’d say Albemarle Baking Company has a good following, including me!
Upon entering Albemarle Baking Company, you will probably be greeted with a substantial wave of buttery goodness to please your nose. Then, you will behold a bakery case full of croissants, cookies, pastries, cakes, and lots of artisanal bread.
I always come out of ABC with a baguette, some croissants, and a tart or pastry. You can’t go wrong here; just let your eyes and nose point the way to ecstasy. They also have tables inside to relax and enjoy a baked treat.
A Bakery Paradox
It’s rare to have one good bakery in a small town these days, but Charlottesville is a foodie town. Paradox Pastry has a lovely outdoor patio that complements the bakery trio I found on my first trip. Their café menu adds biscuit sandwiches to the mix. Grab a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a pastry for breakfast or Saturday brunch. Paradox excels in special order cakes, but order ahead to ensure you get the one you want. Paradox was transitioning to the Dairy Market food hall at the time of this writing.
On my third trip to Charlottesville, I found another bakery in the downtown core. MarieBette Café & Bakery has two locations—one on Water Street and the other on Rose Hill Drive. I found the cute little shop Petite MarieBette on 105 Water Street just before leaving town. I was instantly hooked when I tried the croissants and pastries. Weekends are popular, and you might have to stand in line for 10 to 15 minutes to get your goods, but it’s worth the wait.
My wife and I love MarieBette’s kouign-amann and the breakfast sandwiches. Try the egg and bacon croissant sandwich for a delicious grab-and-go, or eat in their small dining room. Quiche, buttermilk pancakes, and macarons are also good bets. I found Petite MarieBette a perfect place to grab breakfast before crossing the street to attend the downtown farmers market. The offerings differ slightly at the two MarieBette locations, so check the menus online if you’re unsure which place to try.
Note: A Kouign-amann is a sweet cake made with laminated dough. The dough contains layers of butter and sugar, similar to a puff pastry. The sugar caramelizes as the cake slowly bakes, creating something akin to a muffin-shaped croissant.
To the Mall
The downtown Charlottesville Mall is a pedestrian paradise. I find it’s a safe place to browse the various shops, catch a busker performance, or a free concert at the Ting Pavilion. The free concert season at the Ting Pavillion runs from the middle of April through early September.
Check out the food trucks near the Pavilion during the free Friday concerts. The last time we were in town, the Farmacy Food Truck served organic local Mexican Fare. Their tacos, sandwiches, and nachos looked good the night we were there, but since we’d had dinner on the mall, there was no room for tacos.
Petit Pois is a French café on the mall and an excellent place for a romantic dinner outdoors when the weather is fair. The dinner menu offered 11 appetizers on our latest visit. We loved the kale salad starter; the fresh peas and gnocchi were fabulous, also. We finished with a chocolate mousse and left happily for a walk on the mall to burn off some calories.
Take Time for Entertainment
Just a short distance from the restaurant, a crowd gathered around a pair of buskers on the pedestrian mall. A father and daughter duo captivated the audience with heavenly Ukrainian music. We stayed for about 15 minutes and found it hard to leave because the pair were gifted performers who knew how to please a crowd. The Charlottesville Mall has good street performers on any day or night.
Wine lovers should check out Crush Pad, a wine bar on the mall with by-the-glass or bottle offerings. Crush Pad customers can scan a coded menu, order pizza, pasta, salad, and dessert from Luce, and then have it delivered to their table.
Off the Mall and Beyond
The Belmont neighborhood was an up-and-coming place when I first visited. My brother and his wife joined us for a long weekend in Charlottesville for a food and wine adventure. Mas Tapas was a perfect spot for lunch, and the weather was mild enough for outdoor dining.
As the name suggests, there are tapas, lots of tapas. The only food on the menu that isn’t tapas is the paella for two. For $38, you get paella with rock shrimp, organic chicken, mussels, house chorizo, Calasparra rice, and saffron. All tapas selections come as a racion—full-size portion— for a higher price.
For a truly memorable dining event, try Marigold at Keswick Hall. If you don’t mind the 10- to 15-minute drive, Marigold by Chef Jean-Georges delivers a gorgeous dining room overlooking the golf course and woods. We found the food and wine exceptional and recommend the roasted cauliflower, lobster pizza, and wines by the glass.
If you’re visiting Charlottesville in the fall, consider adding pick-your-own apples to the mix. Virginia is the sixth largest apple producer in the US. Carter Mountain Orchard is the local choice for apples and peaches. Carter Mountain also has a country store and a bakery where hard cider and wine are available. Kids of all ages love their apple cider donuts, especially when paired with ice cream. Carters Mountain is just a few minutes’ drive from Monticello or downtown Charlottesville.
The Virginia Farmers Market Association (VAFMA) website lists seven farmers markets in Charlottesville. I’ve only been to the Charlottesville City Market on 100 Water Street. One highlight was Janey’s Bread for artisanal baked goods using Deep Roots Milling flour. Located in the historic Woodson’s Mill, Deep Roots is one of Virginia’s few historic water-powered mills left functioning. They produce the best baking flour I’ve ever found, furthering evidence of the Charlottesville food culture.
Another vendor I liked was My Friends Mushroom Company. I bought fresh morels to take home and cook up some fantastic pasta. Crazy Farm had some of the best-looking strawberries and veggies I’ve seen. There was a line to buy their produce, indicating a good place to shop. Carpe Donut is an excellent example of Charlottesville’s food culture. They sell donuts made from organic ingredients!
Where there is great food, often wine is close by. The area has over 40 wineries, and I’ve visited a few. I recommend Barboursville Vineyards, Eastwood, Michael Shaps Wineworks, Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards, and Horton Vineyards.
Consider getting the Monticello Wine Trail Passport to log your visits and have a chance at winning prizes.
Barboursville Vineyards and Pippin Hill have on-site restaurants that do a great job of pairing their wines with excellent cuisine. Eastwood is a woman-owned winery with good wines, a tasting room menu, and a food truck (most weekends) for hungry visitors. Michael Shaps is a bit out of the way but has one of the best petite Mansengs in Virginia.
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