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Foodie Towns/Cities in Virginia?

s
sethacke Aug 24, 2009 09:18 AM

My husband and I are thinking about moving to Virginia sometime within the next few years, and among our considerations for the ideal place are towns/cities that have a lot to offer the food enthusiast. I've been thinking strongly about Charlottesville. Are there a decent number of offerings here? Where else would you recommend?

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  1. m
    mikeh Aug 24, 2009 11:02 AM

    No, Charlottesville as a foodie city is laughably bad. I'm up here right now after living in the Raleigh/Durham area, which definitely IS a foodie metro. area, and there is barely anything worthwhile to eat up here.

    Restaurants, be they casual eateries or expensive places, serve food that has no distinctive identity or culinary merit. It's like they're all phoning it in. Cheap eateries are mainly sandwich or salad places that don't do anything creative with what they serve. For more expensive places, they are egregiously overpriced, and Charlottesville is seemingly stuck in the 80s notion that "french food" is somehow the end-all, be-all of classy dining.

    Further, C'ville doesn't have proper indigenous or southern cuisine. I've lived all across the South, and usually you can walk into any hole-in-the-wall family run place in any tiny town and have a great down-home meal. Here everything is bland, watered down, boring, or banal.

    Finally, there's no local or organic movement to speak of. A few restaurants use such ingredients as an excuse to charge higher prices, but there's no cohesive philosophy behind a restaurant movement here that approaches cuisine in that way.

    5 Replies
    1. re: mikeh
      Naco Aug 24, 2009 11:32 AM

      I've only dipped my toes in on a few occasions, but that pretty well fits my impression of Charlottesville. The last time I went, I had unremarkable Indian(leaning toward bad at Milan), and the Mall was as boring as ever. The only remotely interesting place I ate at was Zamzam Kabob on 29.

      It's an odd town- its dining scene gets a fair amount of love from the press, but there's no soul there.

      1. re: Naco
        m
        mikeh Aug 24, 2009 05:04 PM

        If the original poster is looking for small towns with a more vibrant foodie scene, I would recommend Asheville, NC. If the combination of an impressive foodie scene and good medical care is the focus, then I have to recommend the Durham/Chapel Hill portion of the Raleigh metro. area, which while in a large city can have a small-town feel if you live in the right places. See this article - http://www.bonappetit.com/magazine/20...

        I think Charlottesville gets love from the press because it has what is dubbed as "variety" for a place with a total metro. area population of ~100,000. But honestly it is no better "variety" from a quality perspective than one finds in any mid-sized college town. Ithaca, NY comes to find as a similar town with such widespread lack of quality. In Charlottesville, you basically have two audiences - college students who couldn't care less how food tastes as long as it's filling and is in the general ballpark of a particular genre, and rich elderly folks who are willing to drop $25-35/entree for entirely mediocre results.

        I've already driven to Richmond, VA with friends just so that we can get some good eating in at the end of the week. Richmond is certainly no fount of culinary masterworks, but at a population of 1 million, you inevitably get some cream that rises to the top.

        1. re: mikeh
          meatn3 Aug 24, 2009 09:19 PM

          I'll miss your Triangle input and look forward to reading about your new discoveries!

          1. re: meatn3
            m
            mikeh Aug 25, 2009 06:42 AM

            Don't worry - I'll be back and forth between here and the Triangle/NC a lot for the next few months before a bigger move to (gasp) California. I'll be doing much scouting out in both VA and NC over the coming months and will report every find.

      2. re: mikeh
        LulusMom Aug 29, 2009 11:05 AM

        Couldn't agree more. I moved from DC (great food town) to Charlottesville (touted as a great food town, but not at all) to Chapel Hill, and I"m so thrilled to be away from C-ville. Luckily for me, I'm a fairly decent cook, but you do like to get out for dinner once in a while. I'd also like to add that for some reason I've had the worst service ever in the year I lived in C-ville. Over and over again.

      3. s
        sethacke Aug 25, 2009 08:12 AM

        As appealing as Raleigh/Durham and Asheville are (we visit both areas frequently), for other reasons, we are really limiting our search to cities within Virginia. Am I destined to a life without good food?

        5 Replies
        1. re: sethacke
          j
          Janet from Richmond Aug 26, 2009 07:04 AM

          I'm in Richmond and while admit I am biased, I think we have a great selection of restaurants for a city ofour size.

          1. re: Janet from Richmond
            a
            AMFM Aug 26, 2009 10:37 AM

            i agree. it took me awhile to feel that way after living in a much bigger city and since i have very small children here which limits my going out ability currently but i think the restaurant scene is nice here- and getting better.
            plus i've found it a really nice place to live otherwise.

            1. re: AMFM
              m
              mikeh Aug 26, 2009 11:20 AM

              OP might like to browse the Style Weekly "top 50" list for Richmond, linked below. I think it provides an example of what Richmond has to offer and jives pretty well with what locals find to be worthwhile eats. I've found it quite handy, being uninitiated to Richmond as I am but ready to explore its offerings:

              http://styleweekly.com/ME2/dirmod.asp...

              1. re: mikeh
                a
                AMFM Aug 26, 2009 12:53 PM

                not a bad place to start but definitely some missing. i have found there to be great southern and ethnic food and a few great upscale gems in this town. some misses too - but those are everywhere.

                again 4 years in, i'm happy here.

                1. re: mikeh
                  j
                  Janet from Richmond Aug 27, 2009 05:18 AM

                  Style Weekly is one source but definitely not "the" source and definitely rates restaurants and chefs on things other than quality. I would suggest (disclaimer: my food blog is included) checking out eatingrichmond.com or richmondgoodlife.com/richmond_top50_restaurants.htm

          2. m
            mojoeater Aug 28, 2009 02:39 PM

            While I am sorry that mikeh is not happy with the food in Charlottesville, I must disagree with many of his statements. First of all, Cville definitely does have a local food movement. Many of the local eateries source both meat and produce from VA farms. Letoile, Maya, The Local, Mas, Blue Mountain, C&O, Rev Soup, etc. all get as much as they can locally. Heck, even the Chipotle uses local pork. Visit http://www.buylocalvirginia.org and type in a zip code. That site will give you CSA's, caterers, restaurants, farmer's markets, and other places to find local foods.

            No, you will not find great Chinese, Indian or Mexican in Charlottesville. And if you ever lived in NYC or Southern California as I did, you may never be happy with those cuisines anywhere in Virginia or DC. And Cville doesn't really consider itself a Southern city, in spite of its relation to the Mason Dixon line, so don't expect awesome BBQ, collards, etc.

            What you will find is a small town (Cville is not a big city by any means) with some really good food. I took my vegan friends from LA to Maya (upscale Southern comfort food) and they absolutely loved the Seitan - said they'd never had it prepared better. The burger at The Local with manchego cheese and carmelized onions is awesome, and my SO can't stop eating their short ribs. The mussels and tuna tartar at Zocalo (Spanish-inspired) make an excellent meal. Shebeen's peri-peri sauce (South African) rivals any other out there. The tuna tostada at Continental Divide (Southwestern) is a steal at $9-10.

            Foods of All Nations offers excellent lunch options. The sandwiches at Bellair will make you look twice at gas station food. Sticks makes awesome hummus and their kebobs are tasty. I personally love the dumplings at Marco & Luca's, which they make from hand and serve for really cheap. Revolutionary Soup always has great soups and sandwiches. And there are too many other places to name.

            Before you move anywhere, come for a visit. Check it out for yourselves. The good thing about Central VA is that you are close to the mountains, the beach, and the DC museums. Drive just a short distance outside Richmond or Cville and you'll find numerous vineyards and gorgeous views. You won't have the variety of NYC, LA, SF, CHI, or NOLA, but VA has a lot to offer.

            3 Replies
            1. re: mojoeater
              m
              mikeh Aug 29, 2009 10:39 AM

              I think our prospective VA foodies need to try it out for themselves and see whether it's satisfactory. Different strokes for different folks. But as they can clearly see from this thread, there are differing opinions out there as to whether Charlottesville has a worthwhile foodie scene. Some think it does. Others (and not just myself) think otherwise.

              Here's my opinion of some of the places you mention. Again, this is just one opinion, but I might as well get it out there for the sake of discourse -

              The sandwiches at Bellair: So yeah, it's a gas station that serves food that's above your typical gas station quality. But that's a gimmick, not an absolute tell as to their quality. The sandwiches themselves are nothing to write home about - it's not like they're using a lot of locally-sourced ingredients or trying out bold combinations of flavors. I recommend you check out the websites of SandWhich in Chapel Hill, NC and Toast in Durham, NC to see what a "real" sandwich shop can accomplish. As for gas stations serving good food, Bellair in no way can compare to the Saxapahaw General Store gas station in Saxapahaw, NC (a very rural town), where they're serving beef short ribs, lamb shanks, and venison next to the motor oil aisle inside the store.

              I can't believe Sticks would be mentioned as a place to go for mediterranean food. Honestly, I find it to be a very sorry excuse for it. The hummus is Kroger's quality, the kebobs have been tough the three times I've tried them, and the falafels are tasteless and rock hard. In fact, Sticks has become a running joke in my household in allusion to the old Santa lore that Santa Claus would put sticks in your stocking if you've been a bad child.

              I agree that the dumplings at Marco & Luca's are good, but it'd be nice if they served something on their menu other than dumplings. They only have like five items there, and nothing that includes veggies. Makes it impossible to go there for anything even approaching a balanced meal.

              The soups and sandwiches and Rev Soup? eh. It's soup. It's homemade. But it's too bland. You don't get the adroit combination of flavors or wow moments that you'd expect from a place that has soup as the main feature of their existence.

              Maya is expensive Southern food, and what they do, they do decently. But the menu is limited compared to similar places of the same genre. Just look at the side veggies - greens, green beans, broccolini (are you serious?). That's it? In fact, I've not been to an upscale Southern place that phones it in in terms of variety of offerings as Maya does. Compare it to Comfort in Richmond, VA, Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, NC, Hominy Grill in Charleston, SC, Red Onion in Charleston, SC, Cypress in Tallahassee, FL, Tupelo Honey Cafe in Asheville, NC, Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, NC, Twenty One and Main in Elkin, NC - and you'll see how woefully lacking it is in comparison.

              If C'ville doesn't consider itself a Southern city, then what indigenous identity does it claim If it doesn't have that, then why did the city abandon such an identity? A city needs to have a core philosophy and soul - some roots to draw upon - to be considered a great foodie town.

              Letoile? Right in the wheelhouse of my example of C'Ville being stuck in the notion that charging outrageous prices for French food is the genre de resistance of haute cuisine, which is an antiquated concept by about 20 years.

              The Local - have yet to give that a try, but it may be one of the few shining stars in the C'Ville cosmos.

              Mas as a tapas place - it's decent and there's nothing objectionable about it. It's an enjoyable place. It's nothing that makes C'Ville unique in any respects, though. Similar quality tapas places can be found in most cities of C'ville's size.

              Here's my bottom line - the OP were looking for a city for the food enthusiast. The bar to cross for that is beyond a place merely having decent restaurants and a decent variety. There has to be enough of a variety of high-quality cuisine so that you can make the rounds without running out of choices or getting bored. It also means that the places within your rounds are changing it up/innovating/creating new menus to keep the foodie experience exciting after the first x number of months of living somewhere. There's only a small handful of C'ville restaurants that meet all those criteria.

              1. re: mikeh
                m
                mojoeater Aug 29, 2009 11:10 AM

                My main point is that in the state of Virginia, Cville does pretty well for itself food-wise. It absolutely cannot be compared to larger, more metropolitan cities, but it does a lot better than other towns with a 40k population (the surrounding county of Albemarle has about 90k, including the very rural areas). Lynchburg has almost twice the number of people and in my opinion far less variety. Using Asheville, NC as a comparison is also not quite right, since the city has 75k and the surrounding counties have over 400k.

                When I describe Cville to people, I often say it is a small town that does a good imitation of a bigger city. There are good restaurants here (you agreed with some above). Plus there is a good music scene, good theatre, many galleries, lots of options for the outdoor enthusiast, etc. You obviously came from a larger metropolitan area and aren't happy here. OK. I've lived in big cities, too. I prefer the pace of life here and when I want real ethnic diversity in my food, I plan my vacations accordingly.

                1. re: mojoeater
                  bbqdawg Aug 29, 2009 02:52 PM

                  Thats all well and fine, but the OP asked for a place with "a lot to offer a foodie", not a place that "does pretty well for itself food wise". Having a few good restaurants does not equal a lot to offer.

            2. c
              Cameraman Aug 28, 2009 07:09 PM

              OK, I know I'm going to get slammed for this, but wth, you don't know my face or where I live. Before moving to TN we lived in Lynchburg, VA for over 25 years. Lynchburg is not cosmopolitan but I was always amazed at the number of good restaurants the city supports.
              And for the price of a 900 sq ft condo in C'ville you can by a lovely home in Lynchburg. And with five colleges im the area there is no shortage of art, music, lectures, etc. Ok, take your best shot.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Cameraman
                m
                mikeh Aug 29, 2009 10:00 AM

                Who exactly was this in response to? I don't think Lynchburg has even been mentioned so far in this thread. I'm really interested in the offerings that Lynchburg has. In fact, I've already done takeout from Lynchburg on my way to and from Charlottesville on many an occasion.

                IMO, it's a fine city. There haven't been many Lynchburg threads on this site, so maybe you can offer some recommendations? I for one look forward to scoping them out.

                1. re: mikeh
                  c
                  Cameraman Aug 30, 2009 03:29 PM

                  It's in response to all those years of C'villians disdain for Lynchburgers or Lunchboxers as they referred to us. I don't know what we'd do without Buena Vista to look down our nose at (I know that's bad grammar.) Seriously, it's been a couple of years so I.m not sure if I'm the right person to ask. A few places that come to mind are Bull Branch, Dish and Main Street downtown, Meriwhether's, Isabella's, Jazz Street, Milan's and the Silver Pig. A quick search should give you a few opinions on each of them. Let us know what you think.

                  1. re: Cameraman
                    m
                    mountaincachers Sep 13, 2009 05:04 AM

                    I have lived in Lynchburg almost 10 years, and I would say that the food scene here has improved considerably, but not sure I would describe it as a foodie haven quite yet. When we moved here, the restaurant scene was dominated by chain type places, and I think there is still a large part of L'burgs population that prefers the safe, known, and bland. There is, however, a growing group of foodies that has traveled extensively, come from big cities, and expects/wants good food at home. Of the restaurants that Cameraman recommended, Dish and Bull Branch are two of our favorites. Our other favorite (though not technically in Lynchburg) is Millstone Tea Room in Sedalia. I think Main St has gone downhill, Meriwether's closed so the owners could focus on catering, and Jazz St closed because of delinquent taxes. On the ethnic front we now have Milan, Thai 99, and Kabab Grille. We have some great and fun places for lunch: Starlight, Blue Marlin, and Magnolia's. Our newest restaurant is Mangia, opened by the owner/chef of Dish. The other thing I would say is that, for those of us who like to cook, the options have gotten better with Blue Marlin seafood, Bedford Ave Meat Shop (BAMS), Magnolia, produce from the farmer's market or CSAs. The grocery stores still leave much to be desired, particularly in the produce arena.
                    I have lived in both Lynchburg and Charlottesville. I think the grocery/dining options are still better in C'ville, but they can't beat the quality of life in L'burg. We love living here, but I think anyone who moves here should do it with eyes wide open and with realistic expectations of what you will find. For us, there are more than enough good restaurants and cultural activities to keep us busy. If you are someone who needs a different restaurant every night, this is probably not the place for you. One thing we've found is that this is an inexpensive enough place to live that we have money to travel, get our big city fix, splurge on high end restaurants, and return to our home where we never have to wait for traffic lights!

              2. f
                foodjack Sep 3, 2009 09:06 PM

                I've lived in varous parts of Virginia for 51 years. The best foodie towns will be the larger population areas such as Northern VA outside of DC, Richmond, and Tidewater. (now being called Hampton Roads which is the Norfolk area) In the smaller towns around the state, you can find some very nice individual Inns and privately owned local restaurants, but probably not a great foodie town. Virginia is very good for touring these areas as it ranges from the ocean to the mountains, and is steep with both revolutionary and civil war history. The Virginia State Park system is rated the best in the US as well. However, I'd still live closer to one of the larger population areas if you want the daily foodie atmosphere.

                1. c
                  cajun willie Sep 14, 2009 05:55 PM

                  1. Northern Virginia - Amazing ethnic food! It might be in the Commonwealth but you're essentially living in DC.
                  2. Richmond - Nice mix of restaurants....lot of southern charm.
                  And that's about it. After the big two, there is a substantial drop off.

                  One small town, dark horse might be Culpeper. A hand full of decent restaurants and two that are very good (It's About Thyme and Foti). Plus you've got easy access to all the vineyards in the area.
                  Or just split the difference between DC and Richmond and live in Fredericksburg (like myself). It's about a 45-60min trek either way. I would consider the food scene in Fredericksburg, itself, to be above average but nothing to write home about.

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