Atmosphere: Old-fashioned, but with a modern menu. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.; closed Sunday. Price range: From $1.15 for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich to $5.95 for New York strip steak. Reservations: Not necessary but advisable for large groups. Credit cards: VISA and MasterCard. Special facilities: Limited kosher menu available by calling a day ahead; booster seats; not accessible to the handicapped.
Those of us who have taken the 2 1/2-hour drive to Charlottesville know it's one of the most pleasant excursions in this area. Naturally, a major reason for driving through those beautiful rolling hills and lush valleys is to see Thomas Jefferson's magnificent home at Monticello or the University of Virginia campus in town. Charlottesville itself is a picturesque old town that sometimes looks like it could be the set for a turn-of-the-century film.
Years ago, Northern Virginians and Washingtonians would drive the winding roads through Virginia carrying as much food as their hampers could hold. Back in the '50s, it was better to be prepared than to submit one's senses to the food available at the hot dog stands, drug store counters and Tastee Freezes around town.
Today, however, the area boasts a rapidly improving selection of restaurants for the footsore and cranky tourist.
We've discovered a place that may well be the perfect family eatery. It's called the Hardware Store, which is what it was when built in the heart of Charlottesville in the 1890s. The three-story building is constructed of the rich, heavy wood that recently has come into fashion among restauranteurs seeking the California look. In this building, however, the massive wooden shelving and balconies actually did hold hammers, anvils, farm implements and hardware by the ton. Today the place shines as brightly as the day it was built.
But the best thing about the Hardware Store is food.
Its specialties are sandwiches and burgers, which is not surprising for a university town restaurant. The food goes far beyond the usual college fare, however, and is so good and so fairly priced that someone accustomed to Washington standards is amazed.
The basic hamburger, for example, starts at $1.60 and includes lettuce, tomato, onion and a pile of homemade potato chips. Portions aren't large but easily can satisfy an adult's appetite. Many of the fish and steak dinners are frozen, but are prepared with care and are well garnished; they seem worth the low asking price. A fried fish platter with rice and ratatouille costs $3.25, for example, and a large New York strip steak with vegetables and potato costs $5.95.
But the glory of the place is the extraordinary variety and number of sandwiches and specialty dishes. Everything found in a good New York deli is here; the good-sized portions make most sandwiches a meal in themselves.
One of the delightful deli specialities that we tried was a big potato stuffed with cheese, sour cream and pastrami and baked until golden brown ($4). It was delicious.
You can order hush puppies, crepes, caviar, salad nicoise, gazpacho, kasha blintzes -- even a basic bologna sandwich.
During our most recent visit, we ordered vegetable soup (65 cents), which was too cool for comfort. The cream of spinach crepe (1.65) was fluffy and fresh, yet it too wasn't warm enough. We soon decided that the problem was our location. We were seated high up on one of the balconies away from the front of the restaurant. The food just took too long to make it all the way to our station.
Our 5-year-old child could not finish his hamburger ($1.60), which was served with lettuce, tomato, onion and home-made potato chips. The 3-year-old enjoyed an apple cobbler from the dessert menu.
The dessert sundae menu is extensive, offering everything from the Wash Tub ($5.75) to a single scoop of ice cream (45 cents). We tried the Wahoo ($1.35), which is orange sherbert, blueberries, whipped cream and pecans. In addition to sundaes, there are fruit coolers, floats, pies, cakes and pastries.
In the basement, there are poster and specialty shops you can wander through after eating.
The Hardware Store is a culinary landmark to head for when you visit Charlottesville and hunger for good old-fashioned food at a fair price. Our tab, including wine, milk and tip came to $19.