Note: This post is part of our guest series, The Corner, by digital media students at The University of Virginia. Today’s student contributor is Ali Donaldson.
Michael’s Bistro and Tap House has been “tapping it since Clinton was President” as their t-shirts will tell you. First opened in August 1994, their twenty-year run on the Corner is no small feat. The Bistro was founded by Michael Crafaik, a pioneer who had a vision to open a restaurant built around craft beer long before it was trendy. His requirements were clear (and unheard of at the time in the area), a ten-tap bar flowing with microbrews and ciders. “Nobody really even on the East Coast was doing this at the time,” said current owner Laura Spetz. “From the beginning, it was something unlike anything else Charlottesville had really seen.”
Crafaik passed away in 2008, but his longtime staff stepped in to sustain what he created. Spetz, who first managed the bistro in 1994, returned as owner to carry the torch. “My life came full circle and I was back at Michael’s Bistro.” Throughout her tenure, executive chef Matt Lechmanski has manned the kitchen. Lechmanski was on the bistro’s staff before that, and has been in the restaurant business as long as he can remember, starting out washing dishes as a teenager. “I’ve spent the better part of my life chained to a stove — happily, mind you,” said Lechmanski.
While Spetz and Lechmanski have been with the bistro for years, other folks have found it a good place to learn the ropes before running their own restaurants around town, like Maya, Blue Moon Diner, Ace Biscuit and Barbecue, and Brazos Pop Up Taco Shop.
“We are not above pretension, but we are above Littlejohn’s,” they will tell you with a sly smile. Hardwood stairs lead you up to the Bistro, where the walls are lined with wooden booths. The light is dim. The mood is relaxed and comfortable. Glass doors open to a balcony of rod-iron tables—overlooking the constant shuffling of the Corner. “As far as location goes, I don’t think it could get any better,” Lechmanski said.
Yet, Lechmanski and Spetz have also found that the location brings with it pressures that are unique to the Corner. The Bistro has long been committed to using local food and ingredients wherever possible. At the onset, before the locavore trend, this was a bold choice, but at Michael’s Bistro, they consider it a responsibility. Chalkboards by the bar list local suppliers like Timbercreek Farm (their first), Polyface, the Local Food Hub and the Spice Diva among others. The Bistro soon plans to add to that list Goodwin Creek Farm & Bakery and source all of their bread from the Afton farm.
This committment to local sourcing comes at a price. A menu of high-end, local food puts the Bistro to the test on the often more causal and student-priced Corner. “It can be challenging to do things right, but keep things affordable. We’re not doing mozzarella sticks,” Lechmanski said. “We’re doing a lot of the same local foods that people midtown and downtown are doing,” Spetz explained, “but we can’t charge those prices. We have to do it as well as others, but at Corner prices.” Reasonable prices make the Bistro accessible to anyone, from students to faculty to those just passing through.
What to Order
The Bistro’s specials are always changing, depending on what’s available from suppliers. The regular menu changes seasonally as well, and the Bistro is about to make the switch to their fall and winter menu. Lovers of the longtime fan-favorite chicken pot pie can rest assured that the wait is almost over.
The Bistro’s other most popular dishes, Thai Chicken Curry and the Portabella Mushroom Napoleon, actually predate Lechmanski’s tenure as executive chef, but are so beloved by regulars that the Bistro could never take them off the menu. Lechmanski’s personal favorite is the Grilled Pork Chop from Polyface with hickory syrup and a bourbon glaze. He has also done the same pork chop as a special with an arugula pesto marinade, another of his favorites. As for Laura, she can never decide, as her favorite depends on the day. One thing she is sure about: “There’s not anywhere else I’d rather be.”