There has been minimum of memorable dining here since Thomas Jefferson was serving homemade ice cream at Monticello more than a century and a half ago. So the brave young people who have created a fine restaurant on a downtown sidestreet here find themselves bucking tradition.
The place is called the "C&O," as you'll discover by looking up at a faded "Pepsi" sign on an aged and infirm brick building directly across the street from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad station.
Inside, however, the mood is dramatically different. A rustic bar and a starkly handsome second-floor dining room reflect the rare combination of youthful enthusiasm and mature good taste. A high ceiling, cream and white colors, fresh flowers on the comfortably spaced tables, a display of wine bottles. The menu is in French. The neatly dressed waiters speak quietly, in English. The food is very special: fresh, top quality ingredients prepared with minimum of elaboration. Only a handful of entrees are offered on a menu that changes daily.
It is, in sun, a restaurant worthy of the name.
What makes the C&O of interest this far beyond the borders of what still is known as "Mr. Jefferson's country" is its management and their approach to the business. They're an unusual trio of young amateurs: a parvenu entrepreneur from New York, a lawyer enamored of wine and a woman student from the University of Virginia who took leave to become a chief.
"We knew from the beginning what we wanted," said Philip Stafford, the lawyer, who acts as wine steward and maitre d', "but we couldn't define it exactly. Dining is a sensual experience. We wanted unobtrusive but total service, French country food. We built it around out own taste."
The project began about two years ago after Stafford had met and become friendly with Sandy McAdams, the transplanted New Yorker who had opened a bookstore in the downtown area. A believer in downtown and a crusader by nature, McAdams also started a weekly community newspaper. The Times, to fill in some of the gaps in coverage he attributes to the establishment Daily Progress.
They found a building, decayed "about to the point where you couldn't bring it back" and bought it. Hilary Martin, a 20-year-old English major who thought it might be fun to work for Gourmet magazine one day, heard of their plans and applied for kitchen duty. "We were all amateurs," McAdams said, so we had a lot to learn before we opened" (in March 1976.)
Claudine Cowan, a French woman married to the director of the University of Virginia Press and an accomplished cook, guided them toward a menu concept.
"She and Walker kept us alive to the idea we could do something really good," Stafford said. "We've been pretty consistent in what we've done from the first. We've just gotten better at it.In the kitchen Hilary tried not to do anything we couldn't handle. Our waiters were always very earnest and that helped us a lot when there were mistakes. People saw we were trying and would respond."
Martin cooks on a stove that is a relic from an elemtary school kitchen. "I had two cookbooks here when we began," she said, "Julia Child, Volume One,' and 'Joy of Finding ingredients has been the most serious continuing problem. They still lack a source for fresh fish and report difficulty in obtaining consistent supplies of even basic items. "We're just not big enough," McAdams said. "They won't make an effort to get us something we want unless it's already on hand." Cooking.' I got a lot of complex recipes out of my system before we opened. We concentrate on basics instead. People are overwhelmed by our soups because there's real stock in them. The food looks good because it's fresh. We do a recipe for awhile, then stop looking at the book and it evolves into something else."
She was a vegetarian for a time before the C&O opened and takes considerable pride in the crisp-cooked vegetables that accompany each entree. "At first we served some frozen vegetables, but our standards have gotten stricter and we've become better with more experience. It's a rare night if there isn't something on the menu for the first time."
Not every experiment has been a success. Martin spoke of a cauliflower quiche that would never be seen again. In the main, though, she had more difficulty in keeping popular favorites such as supreme of chicken stuffed with Boursin cheese from becoming fixed items. "We could serve that every night," she said, "but then it would become boring."
The work space she and her assistant, 26-year-old Brenda Taormina, share was rejuvenated during a vacation period in August, but the dinners' meals continue to be hand-carried to the second floor up a steep ladder. It is unlikely there ever will be an elderly waiter at the C&O. It is cramped, so pastries and bread arc hand-crafted elsewhere. Leftovers are cycled into the next day's luncheon menu, which is served only in the bar and is less ambitious than the evening offering.
In the evening, the time for those of gastronomic inclination to dine, there will be a half dozen appetizers, meat entrees and possibly a quiche, two or three vegetables and a quartet or more desserts. (Among C&O preparations that have caught my fancy are a salad of Gruyere chese, a curried crab appetizer, filet of beef with a flawless chasseur sauce and a lovely lemon tarte.) The wine list is not extensive, but contains a number of unusual choices and older vintages at very reasonable prices. Guidance is available at the merest nod, if not from Stafford himself, from the waiters, who seem to share his interest.
But what of the interest of the local citizenry in the C&O? By some accounts the restaurant is a curiosity, but an expensive one, and it will be a long time, if ever, before wine supplants bourbon in this area as the favored alcoholic beverage before, during and after dinner.
"If we didn't have a bar, we'd probably be out of business," McAdams said one afternoon this past summer. Both partners draw small salaries, but have yet to divide profits. "That's not important," Stafford said, "though maybe after awhile it will be. Now we'd like more money because there are a thousand things we'd like to do to improve the place."
While the restaurant has enthusiastic supporters, the C&O's owners feel underappreciated. The university's faculty and residents of wealthy Albermarle County have been no more than sporadic customers. Often there are empty chairs during one or both of two evening sittings in a dinning room that holds not many more than 30. "If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't have been so encouraged," McAdams said. "Business should be better. I suspect half the people here on weekends are from out of town." (The C&O has advertised in two publications: the local Daily Progress and the New Yorker.)
Stafford took up the cudgel. "You have to pay a fair amount of money for quality, that's assumed.But our average dinner check is only around $15 without tip. I can spend that much at a steak house."
Neither is about to quit, however.
Nor is Hilary Martin, who suffered some disillusionment herself one evening when a woman customer walked into the kitchen asking to meet "the chef." As Martin stepped forward, the visitor stepped back in astonishment at seeing a young woman and said, "Oh, you have a cook!" Martin intends to work and finish her degree courses during this school year, then wants to gain more kitchen experience but probably in a different setting.
The restaurant itself has been spruced up inside but the exterior won't change in the near future.
"We have more important things to do," said Stafford. "We still have to find someone to make us fresh butter."