Each year, The Charlottesville 29 answers: if there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29? Background here and here. Annual cuts become ever more difficult, as openings outpace closings. As in prior years, this year’s Charlottesville 29 includes a description of why each restaurant was selected, as well as an ordering guide, with recommendations from the restaurant’s chef/owner and appearances in Five Finds on Friday.
Welcome to The Charlottesville 29 of Sandwiches — the ranking of Charlottesville’s essential sandwiches. Like The Charlottesville 29 does with restaurants, The Charlottesville 29 of Sandwiches asks: “if there were just 29 sandwiches in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?”
Unlike the restaurant 29, the sandwiches are ranked. What does this mean? Well, if there were 29 sandwiches in Charlottesville, the ideal set would be all 29. But, if there were just 28 sandwiches, it would be the top 28. And so on, leading up to the one Charlottesville sandwich that would be hardest to live without.
The list is based on 29 years of research and sandwich consumption in Charlottesville, narrowing hundreds down to a mere 29. A task this daunting requires clearly defined rules. Those are here.
And with that, The Charlottesville 29 of Sandwiches. Click each link to learn more:
1) 80 Shilling Scottish Ale at Decipher Brewing. “The last couple of times I’ve gotten together for beers with my ‘dad’ friends, we’ve met at Decipher Brewing. The guys at Decipher are hands down brewing some of the best beers in town. The 80 Shilling Scottish Ale is incredible. The perfect combination of malty and drinkable. Decipher has plenty of great options on tap, so it’s saying something that I went back for pint #2 of this delicious brew. Especially for someone who is constantly trying new beers.”
2) Cinnamon Roll from T’s Sweetz at IX Art Park. “With such a mild winter, my family and I have been lucky to make it out to the IX Market on several Saturday mornings this season. A few weeks ago, we bought our 5-year-old twin boys a cinnamon roll from T’s Sweetz. This thing was not only colossal but delicious. The kids loved it. The best part was, it was so large, their scavenger dad got to polish off the bit they couldn’t finish.”
3) Chiles Toreados y Cebollitas at Al Carbón. “Al Carbón is one of our go-to family take out spots. It’s one of those rare finds that easily pleases the whole family. One of our favorite sides they have are the Chiles Toreados y Cebollitas. The dish consists of whole chiles and green onions grilled to be crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Salty and sweet, this dish is a palate-pleasing addition to what is always a tasty meal. Now that we’ve found out they deliver, we plan on ordering a lot more often.”
4) Burger and Beer at Mount Ida Reserve. “With a new baby at home, date nights with my wife are unfortunately few and far between. However, we’ve discovered the next best thing which has proven to be easier to achieve: the lunch date! On Valentine’s Day last month, we wanted to do something different and get out of town. We decided to head south down to Mount Ida Reserve Tasting Room & Taphouse. We each got a different burger and beer to try: classic smash for my wife and feisty bull for me, paired with a Festbier and Marzen. Both burgers and beers were phenomenal. And the views were just as good. Taking in the long view of the mountains with a satisfying burger and beer, we felt like we really got to escape, even though we still had a two-month old on our laps.”
5) Crispy Fish with Green Onion at Taste of China. “Chinese, and Szechuan specifically, is one of our favorite take out options on those occasions when we’re looking for some heat. While we do frequent Peter Chang’s, we were turned on to another great option farther north: Taste of China. Don’t let the basic name fool you, these folks have some complex and unique dishes. One we love is their Crispy Fish with Green Onion. Salty filets of crispy fried fish are tossed with chili powder and cumin and topped with cilantro. Once you’ve tasted these perfectly fried bites, I guarantee you’ll crave them like we do.”
Perhaps Charlottesville’s most renowned chef, Laura Fonner has dominated Food Network game shows, won awards for best chef in Charlottesville, and earned praise for her philanthropy. And yet, until Siren opened in 2021, the longtime chef of Duner’s and fixture of the Charlottesville food community had never had a restaurant of her own.
With Siren, she draws on both her passion for seafood and her Mediterranean roots. The result is unlike anything else in town. Zaatar, tzatziki, Shawarma spice, Aleppo pepper, Calabrian chili, and other Mediterranean ingredients spice up a menu heavy on creatures of the sea. And, true to the restaurant’s name, its décor has a feminine touch, designed by Fonner herself, with help from her mother and friends. Part woman, part fish, Siren’s allure commands a spot on The Charlottesville 29.
What to Order
Siren’s menu changes with the season and Fonner’s inspiration, so don’t get too wedded to a single dish. For example, her famous dumplings are only sometimes available, but if they are when you visit, don’t hesitate. With that said, below are our favorites.
Some restaurateurs aim to fill a void. Others give us something we never knew we needed. An unassuming neighborhood restaurant featuring $35 rotisserie chickens? Birdhouse is the most surprising hit in years.
To be fair, that’s not exactly what Liz Broyles and Tim Popa set out to create when they opened their restaurant in 2021. Their inspiration was much simpler. They found so much enjoyment in the food they cook for each other at home, they thought: “Why not see if others like it, too?”
As for the chickens, they are actually underpriced versus a normal restaurant mark-up. Unlike the mass-produced loss-leaders at supermarkets, Birdhouse’s birds are organic, free-range Cross chickens sourced from nearby Virginia farms. For farmers to make a living, the birds might sell for more than $20 each at a local butcher. At Birdhouse, with the magic the kitchen works – a brine, rotisserie roast, and blast in the oven to crisp the exterior – one chicken and a few delicious sides can make a satisfying meal for four.
On top of the food is warm hospitality, one of the coziest rooms in town, and wines sourced by Broyles, longtime sommelier of C&O. In sum, it’s like one of those little neighborhood restaurants on a side street in a big city, where the comfort of a pleasant night out always awaits. Like a bird’s shelter from a storm. Maybe it does fill a void after all. Either way, it belongs on The Charlottesville 29.
What to Order
It’s never much help when servers say: “everything’s good,” but that really is the case at Birdhouse. Build a meal with whatever strikes your fancy, and you’re almost certain to be pleased. Below are our specific recommendations, as well as mentions in Best Thing I Ate All Year, where a Charlottesville chef as named a Birdhouse dish their favorite of the year.
Celery and Olive Salad
Green Pozole w/Chicken
Garlicky Marcella Beans
Best Thing I Ate All Year Picks
Celery and Olive Salad – Kate Collier (formerly, Feast!); Andrew Cole (Lampo)
Chicken Confit – Jason Becton (MarieBette)
Green Pozole w/ Chicken – Alicia Simmons (Tavola)
Rotisserie Chicken – Mitchell Beerens (Lampo); Rachel De Jong (Cou Cou Rachou)