After a year-long “investigation into the state of the American restaurant industry,” writer Kevin Alexander recently concluded: the restaurant business is a bubble about to burst. “America’s Golden Age of Restaurants,” he says, “is coming to an end.” If that’s true, no one seems to have told Charlottesville. Though one local food business owner says we’re “over-restauranted,” many others are busy planning new spots – so busy in fact that 2017 could be a banner year for new restaurants, perhaps rivaling 2014’s The Alley Light, Lampo, Oakhart Social, Parallel 38, and Public Fish & Oyster.
Smoked Kitchen and Tap sneaked in just before 2016 closed, and first up in 2017 is Junction, Charlottesville’s most anticipated opening since Bodo’s on the Corner. Part of the reason is that Junction, like Bodo’s, was a long time coming. Almost all new restaurants experience delays, but work began on Junction in the spring of 2014 – nearly three years ago. Since then, the restaurant had one preview dinner in 2014 and another in 2015. When it opens next week, it will be more than 30 months in the making.
But, it’s not just time that has stoked the anticipation. It’s the people involved. Heading the team is restaurateur Adam Frazier, owner of The Local, who bought the historic building across from The Local in late 2013. “My wife and I saw an opportunity to restore a beautiful old building in the center of Belmont,” he says. He and others in the community worried that, if one of them didn’t buy it, a developer might knock it down and put a new multi-story building in its place. “I love old buildings and I really enjoy renovating them to preserve and continue their history,” says Frazier.
The restoration project was massive: removing paint from the exterior to restore the brick to its original state; stripping all of the walls; replacing windows with wavy glass to match what would have existed when it was first built; repairing windows and sills to their original state; installing heart pine floors with antique cut nails to reproduce the building’s original look, etc. One of the happy surprises was discovering a vintage Pepsi sign under the walls, now a signature of the main dining room.
(Thank you to Ron Paris for sharing these images.)
The result of all of the effort is a strikingly warm two-story space, with lots of natural light to enhance hues of red and brown. Handcrafted details abound, thanks to the help of many local craftsmen:
- Dining Tables: made on site from reclaimed lumber
- Bar: built with lumber from the original building and reclaimed wormy chestnut from Richmond’s E.T Moore
- Bar Stools: fabricated by Barry Umberger, who also did woodwork for C&O, from reclaimed white and red oak from an old Asheville, NC gas station
- Copper: done onsite including exterior, ceilings, and doors by James Sexton
- Metal Work: framing, staircase, railings, and art by James Martin
- Trim and Woodwork: made from reclaimed wood by Marvin Flores and David and Eman Partington
- Benches: made onsite from oak provide by Johnny Walker, a farmer who also provides lamb to The Local
Focusing first on the decor may be burying the lede here because the big story is the kitchen, led by four-time James Beard semifinalist Melissa Close-Hart. Close-Hart made news in 2014 when she announced she was leaving the dream job she held for fourteen years, Executive Chef of Palladio Restaurant, to team up with Frazier. “I feel that I had grown culinarily as much as I could at Palladio,” says Close-Hart. “It was one of my best chef experiences in my career, but I was ready to do something new.” That something new is very very new. After a decade and a half cooking Italian food at a beautiful vineyard in Piedmont, Close-Hart will be cooking Southwest cuisine in Belmont.
Close-Hart has cooked this type of food at home for years, but never in a restaurant, so one of the few upsides of the delay in opening, she says, is time to explore Southwest cuisine even further. “I have been doing a lot of research, both through books and eating at like places,” she says.”I have also been smart in hiring Amber Cohen as my sous chef.” Cohen spent three years as head chef at Continental Divide, one of Charlottesville’s most popular destinations for Southwest cuisine.
The opening menu includes items like an empanada of grilled shrimp, roasted corn, and sweet potato with roasted jalapeno-cilantro crema and queso fresco. There’s also house smoked local pork belly with a creamed corn johnny cake, arugula, mango-chipotle glaze, and a slaw of pickled mango and red onion. For dessert, there’s a classic with a modern twist: Junction’s Fried Ice Cream Supreme, using an ice cream of Mexican chile and dark chocolate in a cinnamon-coffee cookie crust, with whipped cream, salted caramel, and toasted hazelnuts.
When asked to name a favorite, Close-Hart balked. “I’m just excited to cook for the public again,” she says, after two years of staying busy catering for The Local, where her husband is Executive Chef. When pressed, though, Close-Hart acknowledged a fondness for a side of Charred Baby Carrots with Caromont Goat Cheese & Carrot Top Chimichurri. “I am most excited about our Sides to Share section of the menu,” says Close-Hart. “It gives me a chance to showcase local produce and y’all a chance to try multiple dishes at one time.” Like many accomplished chefs, Close-Hart likes to take classic components and add her own twist. Here, the carrot top chimichurri was inspired by an R&D trip to Austin. “Each component stands out on its own, yet they meld wonderfully together,” she says. “And anything with Gail’s cheese is easy to love.”
Cohen, meanwhile, is partial to the Soup of the Day. “It will surprise no one who knows me,” says Cohen, “that I’m most excited about the soup.” The opening one will be a posole verde, with slow cooked pork, hominy, cabbage, avocado, and lime. “Soup is my favorite medium,” Cohen says. “I’ve always loved how much you can accomplish with one small bowl.”
Running the bar program is Alec Spidalieri, who has managed The Local bar since 2015. Spidalieri became a bartender as soon as he turned 21, and has made it a career ever since.
His aim at Junction is to create a hybrid of the craft cocktail bar and neighborhood bar. “I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive,” Spidalieri says. “I want the bar to be somewhere that you can just as easily get a nice cocktail with an important client as grab a beer or two after work with your friends.”
His cocktails follow a similar approach. On the one hand, with house-made bitters, cordials, and tonics, they have the ingredients to sustain the interest of cocktail geeks. On the other hand, many also have a round, slightly sweet finish, giving them broader appeal. “I think of a good cocktail list as being like a well-rounded album, except that you drink it instead of listening to it,” says Spidalieri.
Spidalieri allowed me some samples, and my favorite was his riff on a Paloma, with Camarena Silver tequila, Aperol, lime juice, and house made salted grapefruit cordial. Spidalieri runs the whole thing through his Perlini carbonating system to give it a bright effervescence, and pours it into a trumpet champagne flute.
Meanwhile, a sure crowd favorite will be The Other Woman – a vibrant combination of Belle Isle Moonshine infused with hibiscus and rose, house pomegranate grenadine, lemon, and egg white.
Spidalieri’s favorite is the Texas Hold Me, inspired by a suggestion from autocorrect when he was texting about Texas Hold Em. It’s coffee-infused bourbon, Ancho Reyes Chili Liqueur, lemon juice and a house made orgeat syrup of roasted walnut and brown sugar. Warm with a slightly spicy finish, says Spidalieri. Like Junction itself, perhaps.
As much work as he’s devoted to the cocktail menu, though, Spidalieri is just as excited about everything else. “I’ve put a lot of care into ‘off-menu’ cocktails, with everything fresh and made in house,” he says. “Your Manhattan will have a house-brandied cherry, your Gimlet will have house lime cordial,and I’ll always have a house tonic to mix with.” Beer and wine are not afterthoughts either, with 12 taps of mostly local and craft beer and a list of 50 wines, exclusively sourced from North and South America, to echo the food.
Junction opens January 26, and will seat 160 indoors and 50-60 more outdoors. Initial dining hours: Sunday-Thursday 5-10pm; Friday & Saturday 5-11pm. Reservations available through Open Table on the restaurant’s website or calling (434) 465-6131.