Some say the key to success is to surround yourself with good people. Maybe, but easier said than done. You need to be a person that good people want to surround.
Hunter Smith must be one. In his ever-growing number of ventures, the founder of Champion Brewing Company has had a knack for partnerning with talented people. From his stellar and loyal team at Champion brewery, to Wilson Richey, to Tucker Yoder, Smith seems to attract people who can help him succeed.
Smith’s latest project is no exception. Open now in Stonefield, Champion Grill brings together another talented team, headed by industry veteran J.R. Hadley, who founded and ran the hugely successful Boylan Heights, before selling it last year. Hadley is now Director of Development of the newly formed Champion Hospitality Group, which has several openings in the works, beginning with Champion Grill.
It was the opportunity to work with Smith, Hadley says, that attracted him to his new role. “Hunter has made a conscious decision to take less for himself, and give more via charity, fundraisers, and employee benefits,” says Hadley. “It’s an incredible company with the kinds of values and business structure that I really appreciate.”
A Sports Bar for the 2020s
“Killer beers and comfort food for all the best gamedays” is how Hadley sums up the sports-themed Champion Grill, which takes over the large, airy Stonefield corner space once home to RockSalt. But, it seems more than just that. Champion Grill’s apparent aim is to combine the best of sports bars of the past with updates that meet the tastes of the present. It is a community-focused, vegan-friendly sports bar run by a local brewery, with bar food riffs from a former food truck chef.
As a nod to the past, Champion Grill’s walls are covered with nostalgic sports posters and banners saved from the childhoods of Hadley and Smith. Nods to present-day sports, meanwhile, include a mural of UVa Men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett dunking on Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and, perched above the open kitchen, an electronic scoreboard, currently set to 39-30, the score of UVa football’s recent victory over Virginia Tech.
As in any good sports bar, televisions abound. High-top communal tables and booths provide unobstructed views of the grill’s many screens, always set to sports. And, there’s even a massive projection screen, which Champion Grill uses for particularly big games. Pinball machines, shuffleboard, and vintage arcade games harken back to the youths of many guests.
And yet, instead of the over-sized glasses of mass-produced commercial beers common to many classic sports bars, Champion Grill serves nothing but local beers brewed at its facility right here in Charlottesville. There’s also a full bar, with liquor, local cider and wine from local wineries owned by Smith’s parents.
Sports Bar Food, Improved
I may be burying the lede here because Smith’s best move may have been landing chef Phillip Gerringer. A veteran of kitchens like Mono Loco and The Rooftop, Gerringer is best known for his much-missed food truck South Fork, which grew a loyal following among the late night drinking crowd. His comforting food seems made for a bar.
Gerringer’s menu combines old favorites from South Fork with his own twists on bar food. Menu sections include Fried Appetizers like pickles and pork rinds, Wings, Salads, and Sandwiches & Entrees.
Sometimes when a new restaurant opens, a dish takes off and becomes an immediate crowd favorite. At Champion Grill, the buzz has been for Fried Brussels Sprouts, and it is warranted. The interplay between the bitterness of the Brussels sprouts and the sweetness of the accompanying pepper jelly would complement almost any style of beer.
Gerringer himself is fond of the wings, which he brines overnight, slow-bakes in olive oil, and finishes in the fryer. The result? “A really juicy inside and crispy outside,” Gerringer says. Among the house-made sauces, Gerringer is partial to the fiery pineapple jerk.
Another of his favorites is the Fried Chicken sandwich with Nashville Hot. Gerringer pickle-brines chicken overnight before frying it in a batter of buttermilk and hot sauce, and then tossing it in house-made Nashville Hot sauce. He serves it on house bread with butter pickles.
An unusual focus for a sports bar is vegan food, which, believe it or not, is Hadley’s influence.
Say what? The man who made a living selling patties of ground cow is a vegan? Yes, Hadley converted in January 2018, and has been an advocate ever since. “I came to grips with the fact I could no longer be an animal lover, and support their exploitation and torture,” says Hadley. His Boylan Heights became the first restaurant in Virginia to serve the meatless Impossible Burger, which less than two years later is so mainstream that it is served at fast-food restaurants like Burger King.
“Over the years at Boylan Heights,” Hadley says, “I had countless staff members take on the vegan challenge.” He is continuing that advocacy at Champion Grill, which offers vegan alternatives for most menu items. The “wings,” for example, can be ordered with fried cauliflower, instead of chicken. They are Hadley’s favorite item on the menu. And, all of the house-made sauces are 100% vegan, too. “Our Champion Hospitality Group is focused on being the standard for vegan options and continuing the same kind of regional influence that I started at Boylan Heights,” says Hadley.
A Sports Bar with a Signature Dessert?
How many sports bars have a signature dessert? Here’s betting that Champion Grill will.
It actually originated several years ago at an annual neighborhood party we would hire South Fork each year to cater. One of South Fork’s most popular items was sweet potato fritters, typically offered as a side with sandwiches and other savory items. Some loyalists would follow the truck around town just for the fritters.
One year for the party, I asked if Gerringer could offer the sweet potato fritters as a dessert, topped with gelato. Gerringer obliged. Our party guests loved it. And, they were not alone. The dessert has been so well received, Gerringer says, that he has now put it on the menu at Champion Grill. Topped with vanilla ice cream and honey, it is the rare dessert that alone warrants a visit to a sports bar, even when no games are on.
Champion Grill hours are: Monday – Thursday: 3 pm – Midnight; Friday – Sunday: 11 am – Midnight.