For most of us, food during our college years rarely surpassed 2 am cheese sticks that required hours of alcohol beforehand to endure. Aside from parents’ visits, restaurants escaped our attention.
Three UVa students appear to have more discerning palates. Today, the three students completed their journey through The Charlottesville 29 – this website’s answer to the question: if there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?
The idea to dine at the entire 29 belongs to fourth year UVa students Teddy Garner and Garnett Reid, who both developed a passion for food in high school, during a study abroad trip to Spain. “One of the teachers on the trip is an unprecedented foodie,” said Garner. “And, he really showed us how to appreciate food and how it is made.” They toured a Valencia market with a chef, visited pig farms that make Jamón Iberico de Bellota, ate pig’s brain in Segovia, and went pintxo hopping in San Sebastian.
When Garner and Reid arrived at UVa in 2016, then, they brought with them a passion for food. And, in Charlottesville, they found a great place to explore that passion. But, how?
Cue The Charlottesville 29, which they learned about from one of Reid’s UVa professors. “All you kids probably eat at the same old places,” the professor told Reid’s class one day. “You need to check out The Charlottesville 29, and learn where to eat.”
So, they did. In Garner’s words:
With the declining industry of newspapers, local journalism has obviously taken a hit and, by extension, the acclaimed local food critic –– often employed by local newspapers –– has as well. As such, people are left to flock to Yelp or frivolous Instagram pages to find good places to eat, only to find unknowledgeable opinions.
In mid-sized towns with burgeoning restaurant scenes, there’s no one really there to help sort it out. Instagram influencers with large followings often are paid by restaurants to give good reviews, giving consumers a false sense of what constitutes a good restaurant. Therefore, restaurants aren’t held as accountable for excellence as they once were.
That’s why the 29 is such a great avenue to help navigate a city like Charlottesville’s great culinary culture. You may not critique bad restaurants, but in a way you do by narrowing down to a prestigious list of 29 restaurants. And, meaningful critique is missing in many cities, thanks largely to the decline of local newspapers and the local food critic. It’s sort of a Catch-22: the more avenues there are to critique a town’s food, the less reliable and trustworthy those critiques become. The 29 is trusted by those who care about food at a time when one has a difficult time trusting any restaurant reviews.
Working their way through the 29, Garner and Reid eventually realized that they had visited so many of the restaurants that they figured: why not complete the whole list? Their friend Jack Claiborne, also a food lover, joined their endeavor. “Because we enjoy the website so much, we thought it would be cool to go ahead and knock off each one,” Garner said.
A Celebration at Petit Pois
When Garner reached out about his group’s journey through the 29, he invited me to join them at their final restaurant. Today, on February 29, three UVa students, my son, and I enjoyed a feast at Petit Pois to celebrate their completion of The Charlottesville 29 – their 29th on the 29th.
A Charlottesville icon, fixture on the 29, and one of our city’s best restaurants, Petit Pois was ideal for the occasion. Owner Brian Helleberg, who also owns Fleurie, has long been one of the great people in the Charlottesville food community and among its biggest supporters. His restaurants’ four offerings in The Charlottesville 29 Restaurant Auctions were so generous that their combined winning bids totaled $21,500, creating more than 80,000 meals for the area’s hungry. And, for last year’s celebration of the auctions at Prime 109, Helleberg bought 10 of the 100 tickets available, at $100 a piece, so friends, staff, and family could attend.
It’s no wonder, then, that Helleberg was an enthusiastic host for our celebration. “I remember a very successful chef for whom I once worked claiming that food writers were just failed chefs. He had reverence for the Michelin Guide but said nothing else could be trusted.” said Helleberg. “The Charlottesville 29 has long dispelled that notion by doing more than just providing a trustworthy guide for the consumer, but also helping to make our restaurants and community better.” (Aw shucks.)
A Feast for 29
Helleberg prepared a massive family-style feast utilizing “29 Indispensable Ingredients at Petit Pois,” almost all of which are locally sourced. A devout locavore, Helleberg prizes local sourcing not just for quality but also to support the people behind the food he serves. As a chef in Charottesville for two decades, Helleberg has built close relationships with food families all over the area. “It’s about who you want to write checks to each week,” said Helleberg. “It means everything to me.”
And, if the three students are any indication, The University of Virginia appears to be in good shape. My ten-year-old son joined us for the meal, and Reid, Garner, and Claiborne seemed everything a parent would want their boys to become: passionate, thankful, humble, bright, and kind. Along with the food and service, their company made for a flawless afternoon — unless you count the high number of times they addressed me as “sir.”
A Passion for Charlottesville Food
The Charlottesville 29 began as a passion project for our restaurant community. Kudos to Reid, Garner, and Claiborne for their support of the community. This Tuesday, The 2020 Charlottesville 29 will be revealed. Maybe they will have more work to do.