You can debate which Charlottesville chef is the most talented. You can debate whose food is best. But, there is little doubt which chef has made the biggest impact on our area’s food over the past three decades. Craig Hartman.
For one thing, there are his restaurants. Since coming to Charlottesville in 1991, Hartman has built several institutions. First there was the restaurant at Clifton Inn, which he launched in 1992. Next was Fossett’s Restaurant, which set the bar for fine dining for years. Then, The BBQ Exchange, offering barbecue the Food Network says is among the nation’s best. And, most recently, there was Gordonsville Icehouse, a fried chicken restaurant in the fried chicken capital of the world where many say you can get the best version ever.
But, it’s not just Hartman’s own places that make his impact so profound. It’s his proteges’ too. Many restaurants of The Charlottesville 29 have chefs who worked under Hartman or at restaurants he founded, such as Broadcloth, C&O, MAS, Oakhart Social, and Sultan Kebab. Outside the 29, his impact extends even further.
Given his lofty accomplishments, Hartman’s latest project may seem his most modest yet. It’s not fine dining. And, it’s not a stab at argument-starting icons like barbecue or fried chicken. Instead, Hartman says, Exchange Café is simply a roadside café for food and drink he and his wife like.
Craig achieved all of his success with his high school sweetheart and wife of 46 years, Donna. They have tackled fine dining, a beach resort, culinary education, luxury inns, cooking for celebrities, podcasting, historic sites, barbecue, fried chicken and more. And now, for what may be their final act, they are returning to something simpler and more personal. Food they like to eat every day.
While Hartman says some may find the menu disjointed – spanning various cultures and styles, if you spend a few minutes with him, a common theme emerges. This is the food of the Hartmans’ life.
Take pinchos. Raised by parents who adopted him, Hartman spent years wondering about his heritage and looking for his birth parents. His long search eventually led him to find that he has Puerto Rican roots. He has since embraced his birth family as his own, visiting Puerto Rico often. Spanish for “spikes,” pinchos are one of Hartman’s favorite foods in Puerto Rico — skewered grilled meats often enjoyed as snacks. Exchange Café offers them as either an appetizer or entrée – beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, or vegetables. The key, Hartman says, is that they are cooked with the tool at the heart of the cafe’s kitchen, a hickory coal grill.
Another item getting the hickory grill treatment is a food that Craig and Donna first enjoyed at firehouse cookouts as children in Lebanon, Pennsylvania: a popular version of barbecued chicken in a marinade heavy on vinegar. Decades later, as Executive Chef of Cornell University’s renowned School of Hotel Administration, Hartman learned that the chicken he loved had actually been invented by a Cornell professor, and then spread throughout New York state and Pennsylvania. Some call it Cornell Chicken. At Exchange Café, it bears the dish’s other name in tribute to Hartman’s childhood memories: Fireman’s Chicken.
The Hartmans also love the food of Italy, which they visit often to see their son. The sandwich menu includes the “Cured”: rosemary ham, salami, mortadella, provolone, greens, tomato, onion, oil + vinegar. Or, do it the Hartmans’ way and just order the salumi platter, one of their favorite ways to eat.
Much of the rest of the menu’s offerings are just the simple and healthy foods the Hartmans like to enjoy every day, like grilled meats and fish, with greens and grilled vegetables.
If you’re intro carbs, though, breads are especially good, thanks to pastry chef Sarah Diegl, who worked with Hartman at Clifton Inn before running Real Food in Orange. Diegl particularly shines at breakfast, where offerings include pastries, breakfast tacos on handmade corn tortillas, and breakfast sandwiches on her buttermilk biscuits.
Even the drinks have the Hartmans’ stamp. Caffe corretto, espresso spiked with with just a touch of liquor, is one they fell for in Italy, where they’d see locals sip it all day long. Exchange Cafe’s version combines Shenandoah Joe espresso with sambuca or grappa. There’s also a list of some of the Hartmans’ favorite wines and cocktails, like a Negroni, Old Fashioned, and Sangria.
Perhaps the best news for diners is that all of the food and drink reflects what has become Hartmans’ signature: attention to detail. Regulars of The BBQ Exchange and Gordonsville Ice House know that no detail is too small for the attention of a chef who spent decades in fine dining. At those restaurants, everything bears his stamp: pumpkin muffins, coleslaw, pickles, fried fish, and more. With Hartman at the helm, the same should be true at Exchange Cafe.
The Barboursville roadside space, on Route 33, offers indoor and outdoor seating, plus takeout. It is open Tuesday through Sunday, serving breakfast from 7-10am and lunch/dinner from 11am-7pm. Follow along on Instagram and Facebook.