Beer Run

156 Carlton Rd. Suite 203 . Charlottesville, VA . (434) 984-2337
http://www.beerrun.com/

To some, being a “family restaurant” means having a kids’ menu with chicken nuggets and placemats that double as coloring pads.

We prefer a different interpretation.  Under ours, Beer Run — a beer bar, shop, and eatery — is Charlottesville’s quintessential family restaurant.

Yes, there is a carefully selected rotation of craft beers on tap, as well as dozens more by the bottle.  Yes, there is food that pairs well with the beer and tastes great on its own (so we hear).  And, yes the feel of Beer Run has that je ne sais quoi that makes it one of Charlottesville’s most alluring destinations.

But, what sets Beer Run apart is that it is a true family restaurant.

The Origins

The most basic sense in which Beer Run is a family restaurant is that it is run by family.  Beer Run was founded in December 2007 by Josh Hunt and his step-brother John Woodriff.  It was their mother’s idea.  Really.

In early 2007, Hunt and Woodriff were doing very different things.  Hunt was in Austin, TX, bartending and working other restaurant service jobs.  Woodriff was a real estate agent in Charlottesville, facing a tough market.  Both were ready for something new.

Mary Ann Parr, Hunt’s mother and Woodriff’s step-mother, suggested they open a beer store.  Hunt had a special interest in beer, and of course loved the idea.  Woodriff, although hardly a beer geek, thought it sounded appealing too.  So, they went for it.  What happened next is the stuff of legend.

Serendipty I

When we sat down with Hunt and Woodriff to talk about Beer Run, it is striking how many times we heard the word “serendipity.”  It is hard not to use the word when reflecting on Beer Run’s immense popularity, and then considering that it is only by accident that the restaurant even exists.

The original idea, suggested by Mom, was to open a “bottle shop” in the Belmont and Woolen Mills area.  “She always has ideas,” says Woodriff.  Parr, who was running an inn at the time, had in mind a location in a new shopping center on Carlton Rd., adjoining both Belmont and Woolen Mills.  It was to be a place where folks from both neighborhoods, and others passing through, could buy good beer and wine.

During construction, the architect, Tim Mohr, asked Hunt and Woodriff if they’d like customers to be able to drink a beer while they shop — in which case they would need space for draught beer.  “Do we want draught beer at our store?” thought Hunt and Woodriff.  “Umm, that would be a ‘yes.'”  They especially liked the idea because they were not aware of any other places that allowed customers to drink while they shop.

They soon learned, though, that there was a reason for this.  Virginia state law prohibits businesses from serving alcohol without also serving food.  So, Hunt and Woodriff shrugged their shoulders and said: “guess we’re serving food.”  Thus, one of Charlottesville’s most popular restaurants was born.

Laws restricting the sale of alcohol created Beer Run.  Unintended consequences indeed.

Woodriff, left, with Hunt

Serendipity II

But, what to serve?  And, who would prepare it?  These were important questions, yet wholly new to Hunt and Woodriff, neither of whom had ever run a restaurant.

Again, Mom is there when you need her.  As it turns out, Parr was a recovering restauranteur.  For more than a decade, she owned and operated The Corner’s famous restaurant The Virginian, where Hunt spent much of his childhood.  She also founded the Italian restaurant Rococo’s, one of the earliest entrants in Charlottesville’s restaurant renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s.  Under Parr, Rococo’s employed several folks who went on to run popular Charlottesville restaurants, including Tomas Rahal, of Mas, and Bill and Kate Hamilton, of Hamilton’s and Sticks.

Drawing upon her experience running restaurants, Parr helped with Beer Run’s menu concept and design.  Perhaps best of all, she helped find their chef.  Parr, Hunt, and Woodriff thought that a former Rococo’s cook, Hernan Franco, would be ideal for Beer Run.  The only problem was that they had lost contact with him, and had no idea how to find him.

No worries.  Serendipity was on their side.

Hunt and Woodriff, who personally shopped for many of the materials for constructing Beer Run, found themselves at Lowe’s one day in search of supplies, when they looked down an aisle and thought they spotted Franco.  As they drew closer, they realized it was him.  “We were so excited we practically tackled him, ” says Hunt.   They had found their chef.

Franco, who has also worked at Pizza Bella and Seafood @ West Main, remains the head chef at Beer Run.  Likewise, many of the items from the original menu remain on the menu today.

Chef Hernan Franco


Ties that Bind

Hunt, Woodriff, and Parr are not the only family members who have had a hand in Beer Run’s success.   Several of Chef Franco’s family members, including two sisters, work there.  Two other sets of siblings also work together in the kitchen.  And, family members of Hunt and Woodriff are among Beer’s Run’s current and former employees.

Yet, thicker than the blood that some Beer Run employees share is the sense of family among Beer Run’s staff.  Hunt and Woodriff set the tone with their lack of pretense and unfailingly positive attitude.  No job is too small for them, as they are often busing tables, serving guests, and lending a hand wherever needed.  This helps all employees feel part of a team.  In no other restaurant in town do employees so often become customers on their days off.

And its not just employees who feel like they are part of a family.  Customers do, too.  Just ask Bill, the vegetarian sexagenarian who is Beer Run’s most frequent customer.  Bill recalls being at Beer Run the very day it opened.  Except when traveling, he has been there every day since.

How did Bill discover Beer Run?  Again, Mom is to thank.  Mary Ann Parr told Bill about Beer Run shortly before it opened.  Years earlier, he had been a regular customer of The Virginian during what he considers its heyday — when Parr ran it.  He recalls it as the type of place where everyone felt at home.  Beer Run, he says, is that way, too.

Romper Room

Of course, Beer Run is also a family restaurant in the more common sense of the term.  It is kid-friendly.  Our own children love it.  Whenever they walk through the Beer Run door, they immediately seek out Hunt, and run to him for a hug or high-five.

And, ours are not the only kids who seem to love Beer Run.  Its casual convenience-store feel seems to relax kids and, consequently, their parents.  Indeed,  Beer Run has become such a baby magnet that at times it almost feels like a day care center.  This aspect of Beer Run caught Hunt and Woodriff by surprise.  When Beer Run opened, Hunt and Woodriff were so focused on the beer store aspect of the operation that feeding kids seemed an afterthought.  Beer Run had just one high chair.

They now have seven, as well as four booster seats.

The Food

Of course, it takes more than high chairs and a family feel to earn a spot on The Charlottesville 29.  You have to serve good food, too.  And, Beer Run does.

With a focus on organic and local ingredients, Beer Run’s menu varies depending on the time of day and day of the week.  On weekday mornings, there are made-to-order breakfast items like paninis and breakfast burritos.  The weekday lunch menu includes a selection of sandwiches built around all-natural deli meats and house-baked bread, as well as salads, and a daily selection of soups.

Weekends are a little different.  Saturday morning is the one time all week where you can find Beer Run’s outstanding breakfast tacos, with tortillas made fresh that morning.  Diners can create their own or choose from a menu of favorites like The Cowboy (egg, cheese, black beans, and sausage).  Sunday mornings the menu changes to brunch, with biscuits, french toast, and favorites like Allagash Fish Tacos.

Beginning at 5 pm all week long, the dinner menu is available.  Monday it is a Cajun dinner menu.  Tuesday is Italian night.  And, the rest of the week is a monthly menu of American and international-influenced dishes that allow Chef Franco to showcase his talent.  For those with a lighter appetite, the sandwich menu is available at dinner as well.

Finally, there is an all-day bar food menu of snacks like hummus and nachos, as well as heartier options such as Rock Barn bratwurst and an excellent bison burger.  The nachos and bison burger are two of the three most frequently ordered food items at Beer Run, the other being a sandwich called the Turkey Trot.

The Beer (and Wine)

And, then there is the beer.  Oh, the beer.  While Beer Run is not all about the beer, it is still of course about the beer.  By educating customers, Beer Run has done remarkably well at creating its own clientele.  Customers who were once casual beer drinkers have become full-on beer geeks — home-brewers and all.   This is in part because of the knowledge and passion of Beer Run’s servers, many of whom make their own beer at home.

Hunt says it is also because of Beer Run’s practice of allowing customers to request free samples of anything on tap.  Given how often Beer Run changes its draught menu, it is typical for a regular customer to peruse the day’s menu and find one or two to sample before committing to a whole beer.  This is a great way for customers to hone their beer palates and experience new styles of beer.

Hunt and Woodriff also engage in more formal education efforts.  Hunt taught a beer “short course” at UVa for several years, and has participated in beer podcasts and other public appearances.  And, they are instrumental in the annual Top of the Hops beer festival, which Beer Run sponsors each year.

And, then there is Jay Campbell, Beer Run’s full-time beer buyer.  Hunt and Woodriff realized early on that they had too many other responsibilities to devote the time necessary to beer.  In Campbell, they were lucky to find the perfect beer expert to whom they could delegate beer responsibility.  Campbell plans all of the beer at Beer Run, from what’s on the shelves to what’s on tap.  He also arranges weekly complimentary beer tasting events every Wednesday.  And, he’s always willing to make a recommendation tailored to your taste.  “He likes the diversity of the clientele most of all,” says Woodriff.

Best of all, Campbell makes sure that the draught lines remain clean and that beer quality remains high.  This sets Beer Run apart from many other beer bars, where poor conditions and dirty tap lines can result in sub-par beer.

Jay Campbell’s Favorite Five Beers at Beer Run

Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale
Troegs Nugget Nectar Ale
Founders All Day IPA
Left Hand Mik Stout Nitro
Duchesse de Bourgogne

Anyone skeptical about the impact that Beer Run has had upon the sophistication of Charlottesville beer drinkers should review Beer Run’s sales records.  While Beer Run does stock mass-produced beers like Budweiser and Miller Light, these are not the best-selling beers at Beer Run.  Far from it.  In fact, the two best-selling beers are two of our favorites:  Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.

And, it’s not just beer they do well.  Chelsea Hoyt, Beer Run’s wine buyer, seems to have a knack for finding good value wines that she rotates into an ever-changing selection of wines by the glass.  In addition, diners may enjoy any bottle of wine from Beer Run’s shelves for just $5 above the retail cost.  Can’t finish a whole bottle?  Just take the rest home.  Given that some restaurants charge double or even triple the retail price for a bottle of wine, the $5 flat fee may make Beer Run’s the best-priced wine list in town.

Room for Improvement?

Nobody’s perfect.  And, Beer Run is no exception.  First, the service can be spotty.  As with many casual, inexpensive restaurants, turnover is high among Beer Run’s servers.  Some are young and inexperienced.  To be sure, there is an old guard of Beer Run servers who have been there for years and are truly excellent.  You will be well taken care of, for example, if you happen to be helped by servers like Katie Dickinson, Meagan Tomlin, or Adaline Masah.  Likewise, Noel Scott expertly tends bar.  Even if your server is someone else, you may do quite well, but it becomes more of a roll of the dice.

Second, the tiny Beer Run kitchen, tucked behind the bar, is not large enough to feed all customers at once when the restaurant is at full capacity.  This can be a particular problem when lots of customers arrive at the same time, such as Sunday brunch.  Regulars like us have learned that you might have to be patient.  And, we’ve learned not to mind, either.  There are worse things than sitting at Beer Run, drinking beer.

What to Order

We have been to Beer Run so often that we have discovered a few secrets to eating well.

First, we enjoy the sandwiches best on whole wheat or as a wrap, instead of the house bread.  Don’t get us wrong.  The house bread — a focaccia-style bread made from beer —  is actually quite good.  It goes well with the cheese plate, for example.  And, many people we know love it for sandwiches.  But, our own tastes find it too bulky for sandwiches.  Neither the whole wheat or wrap options appear on the menu, but both are available upon request.

Second, the soups are excellent.  Although they are not prominently featured on the menu, Beer Run serves two or three soups each day.  We think they stand up to the best in town, even at restaurants exclusively focused on soup.

Third, desserts are hidden gems, listed on a chalk board above the bar.  Most of them are made by the very talented pastry chef Elicia Hernandez, who is Chef Franco’s sister, and who also works at HotCakes.

Finally, one of our favorite items at Beer Run is not on the menu at all, but is available on request: a BLT.  Again, we like this best on whole wheat.

Our Picks

  • Breakfast Tacos (Saturday morning)
  • Conchi’s Biscuit Basket (Sunday Brunch) ($5.95)
  • Claim Your Steak and Eggs (Sunday Brunch only)  Hangar steak topped with gorgonzola and marsala/green peppercorn compound butter, with two local eggs over-easy and a side of organic cornmeal grits with a dab of house pesto. ($12.95)
  • Smokey Mountain Runner on a Sundried Tomato Wrap, Pressed, House hickory-smoked all-natural chicken salad with lettuce, tomato, & red onion. ($8.95)
  • Roast Beef Reubenesque on Whole Wheat, Pressed,  Roast beef, spicy slaw, spinach, swiss cheese & chipotle ranch. ($7.50)
  • Grilled Bison Burger, All-natural Madison County bison burger, grilled, topped with Swiss cheese and served on an all-natural pretzel bun with lettuce, organic red onion, house-made chipotle ranch. ($13.95)
  • Fiery Vanguard Goat Burger, Local organic Vanguard Ranch goat burger served on a toasted pretzel bun and topped with organic red onion, organic Baby Spinach, all-natural cheddar cheese & spicy Thai Chili jam. ($15.95)
  • Dubliner Sandwich (March special we wait for all year)  All-natural house-corned beef brisket with homemade colcannon and melted swiss. ($9.95)

Owner Picks

Owners Hunt and Woodriff named:

  • Egg BLT (Breakfast menu)
  • Rock Barn Bratwurst, Rock Barn bratwurst in an all-natural pretzel roll with house vinegar coleslaw & house mustard ($9.95)
  • Allagash Fish Tacos, (Sunday brunch)Allagash beer battered catfish filets on freshly made house corn tortillas, house pico de gallo and creamy chipotle sauce. ($9.95)
  • Tres Colores Fish and Chips, Corn-chip-encrusted fried spicy catfish fillet topped with fresh house-made pico de gallo and chipotle ranch.  Served with organic house-roasted frites. ($15.95)
  • Seared Scallops with Local Oyster Mushrooms and Soy-Ginger Butter, Fresh sea scallops, pan-seared with Sharondale Farm oyster mushrooms, fresh ginger, garlic, shallot, rice wine and wasabi and topped with house-made soy-ginger butter sauce.  Served with sautéed spinach and local sweet potato & parsnip mashers. ($18.95)

Chef Picks

Chef Franco named the Tres Colores Fish and Chips and the Seared Scallops, as well as:

  • All-Natural Grilled Hangar Steak with Bacon-Blue Cheese Compound Butter,  All-natural hangar steak, grilled to order, topped with a bacon-blue cheese compound butter & served with organic brown rice & sautéed vegetable medley. ($20.95)