When five partners opened a tiny Belmont restaurant in late 2014, skeptics scratched their heads. Sure, it was a talented team. Loren Mendosa had run the kitchen at Tavola and also cooked at MAS. Ian Redshaw had cooked at Tavola and been head chef of L’Etoile. Mitchell Beerens had cooked at Tavola and MAS, and had also helped launch several restaurants for Virginia Restaurant Company. Shelly Robb was longtime GM of Bizou and also assistant manager at Tavola. And, Andrew Cole had directed Tavola’s award-winning beverage program.
But, five working partners and just twenty-one seats? Restaurants’ tight margins often fail to support just one partner, let alone five. And besides, food is an ego-laden business. With so many cooks in the kitchen, egos seemed bound to collide.
And yet, Lampo has thrived. Four years after opening, lines still form outside the restaurant every day for dinner. Since 2014, no restaurant has made more appearances in Five Finds on Friday or Chefs’ “Best Thing I Ate All Year.” And, in both 2017 and 2018, Lampo won Best Restaurant in C-VILLE Weekly’s annual Best of C-VILLE.
For their next trick, the team is going to the opposite extreme: from a tiny pizzeria off-the-beaten-path to a colossal steakhouse in the former Bank of America building at the heart of the downtown mall – Prime 109. While Lampo is one of Charlottesville’s smallest restaurants, the multi-story, 10,000 square-foot Prime 109 might be the downtown mall’s biggest. Ever. Lampo’s entire restaurant could fit in Prime 109’s kitchen. Three times.
And so, again there are skeptics. In a restaurant market that many call over-saturated, Prime 109 is adding more than 150 seats. And, while the steady trend in restaurants is smaller and more casual, Prime 109 is a throwback to grand and opulent.
How does the team plan to overcome a new set of doubts?
The same way they did at Lampo: relationships.
Good People Make Good Restaurants
The relationships most vital to the Lampo team’s success are those they share with each other. At the risk of sounding sappy: good people make good restaurants. And, by good, I mean decent, kind, and caring. Sure, it helps to have talent, passion, and business aptitude. But, what stands out most about great restaurant successes is that they are usually run by good people.
The Lampo team is good people. Tight margins have not sunk them because they care more about each other than squeezing out the last dollar. “We understand that, at the end of the day, best quality products are more important that someone being upset,” says Redshaw. Egos remain intact because no one worries who receives “credit.” When Mendosa was named C-VILLE’s Best Chef in 2015, there was no one happier than his partners. When Redhsaw won the same award this year, it was again his partners who celebrated most. “We were thrilled for Ian,” said Mendosa. “It was great to see the greater public recognize what all of us have known for a long time.”
On a recent national food podcast, Beerens explained what’s behind the team’s success:
We all loved each other. We were real, true friends. And, we trusted each other . . . because these people don’t have a bad bone in their body. It’s not just because we are business partners and we can all gain something off of each other. These are just genuinely good people.
The Lampo team’s close relationships were never more needed than after a tragic accident Redshaw’s wife Allie suffered in March 2017. Former chef of Timbercreek Market and sous chef of Pippin Hill, Allie’s hand became stuck in a meat grinder at Lampo, eventually requiring amputation. In the wake of Allie’s accident, the Lampo team and food community rallied behind her, and with their support, she channeled her passion from cooking to wine. Now equipped with a prosthetic hand and a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Allie is Prime 109’s Associate Wine Director, assisting Cole as Wine Director.
The kitchen roster, meanwhile, reads like the Golden State Warriors of Charlottesville cooking. At Executive Chef is Redshaw. Chef de Cuisine is Bill Scatena, former head chef of Pippin Hill. Pastry Chef is Beerens, good news to anyone who has had Lampo’s bread or crostatas. And Sauté Cook is Mendosa, who will also serve as the restaurant’s de facto CEO. Got that? No bruised egos here: the restaurant’s CEO and winner of 2015 C-VILLE Best Chef is Sauté Cook. Happily.
Heading the bar is Abraham Hawkins, a 2016 transplant from the Big Apple, who boasts more than a decade of experience in some of New York’s most acclaimed cocktail bars, including the world–renowned Dutch Kills, which he helped launch in 2009.
Reinventing Local Sourcing
As with Lampo, the idea behind Prime 109 is to fill a void. In the case of Lampo, it was good Neapolitan pizza. With Prime 109, it is a showcase for local meat. Sure, Charlottesville has steakhouses. But none that puts our region’s bounty front and center.
This is where another key set of relationships come in – those with the local food community. As devotees of local sourcing, the Lampo team has built connections with some of our area’s best. With a fondness for meat, Redshaw has led the way on that front through a steak program at Lampo featuring local meat that he dry-ages himself to enhance flavor and tenderness. The steak program became so popular that Prime 109 was a natural outgrowth, drawing on a trio of key partners: Seven Hills, Sherwood Farm, and Highland Orchard Farm.
Dry-aged steak program at Lampo.
An abbatoir and meat wholesaler, Seven Hills has changed the landscape of Virginia beef, Redshaw says. “Their facilities are the most humane I’ve seen,” says Redshaw. “And they focus on the same key tenets we do.” Sherwood Farm and Highland Orchard, meanwhile, are two area farms that Redshaw says raise cattle the right way. “Happier cows make better meat,” proclaims Sherwood Farm.
A key concept behind Prime 109 is that the restaurant’s size will enable it to transform conventional restaurant-farm relationships into true partnerships, with the end result being better products at better prices.
A key concept behind Prime 109 is that the restaurant’s size will enable it to transform conventional restaurant-farm relationships into true partnerships, with the end result being better products at better prices. “I’m most excited about the opportunity to grow and support local farmers in a new way,” says Mendosa, “going beyond just utlilizing their ingredients, to helping streamline their businesses so they’re more profitable and better able to focus on producing the best products.” How? Meat’s typical path from farm-to-table is laden with middle men and inefficiencies: processing, packaging individual cuts, and distribution. The sheer scale of Prime 109 will allow it to cut out many of these inefficiencies by buying whole animals directly from farms and having them processed by Seven Hills specifically for the restaurant. This is a win-win-win. For farms, better profits and more time for other tasks. For Prime 109 and guests, quality products without exorbitant prices.
To help cook this well-sourced meat, the team called on another local connection: acclaimed cookware artisan Blanc Creatives, whose Founder Corry Blanc built Prime 109’s massive wood-fire cooking system. Drawing inspiration from Grillworks and Grills by Demant, Blanc designed the system with grills that can easily be raised and lowered above the fire, to control temperature while achieving the sear that steak-lovers seek. Above each grill is also a vertical rotisserie to hang items for slow cooking, like ducks and prime ribs. “The guys gave me a great opportunity on this one,” says Blanc, “–design, engineer and fabricate a concept that’s been in my head for a while.”
The Customer Experience
A spectacular space. A loaded roster. Quality products. What will it all add up to?
The approach, Redshaw says, is the same as Lampo: technique-driven, flavor-focused food, lacking in ego. Humility aside, Prime 109 will showcase Redshaw’s passion and talent like no restaurant has before. Having seen glimpses of what he can do at Lampo and L’Etoile, Redshaw’s fans in Charlottesville have long awaited a chance like this for him to let loose. And, it’s not just customers who are excited. “We’ve consistently said throughout our partnership that Ian is the most talented in the kitchen,” says Mendosa.
One menu section is a la carte, like a traditional steakhouse. Choose a cut of dry-aged steak, priced per ounce, and pair it with your choice of toppers and sides. Toppers include options like foie gras, bordelaise, and barolo compound butter. Your side might be thrice cooked fries; smoked fingerling potatoes with ramp aioli, smoked salt and chives; or Charleston Ice Cream, Carolina gold Rice, Maine uni, chervil, and puffed wild rice. Plus, Parker House rolls, made to order.
Lampo regulars will recognize the attention to detail. For potato pave, a traditional gratin of thinly sliced potatoes is first pressed, and then square portions are deep-fried in tallow, and topped with creme fraiche and chives. For a creamed spinach riff, spinach is sautéed with shallot, garlic and olive oil. Then, rather than folding in bechamel, the spinach is topped with a fonduta out of an iSi and crisped shallot. “It’s all the flavors you think of nostalgically with creamed spinach, while enjoying something a bit lighter,” says Redshaw.
Among dry-aged steaks, the signature is the restaurant’s namesake, Prime 109: Sherwood Farm bone-in rib-eye, dry-aged for 109 days. Redshaw recommends it with a loaded baked potato, rapini, and “Oscar” topping, which is Dungeness crab in a sauce of demi glacé, foie gras, and shaved truffles. “Takes me back to the Steak Diane I had as a child at the Walnut Room in Chicago’s Marshall Field’s,” Redshaw says.
Much of the rest of the menu is refinements of steakhouse classics – dishes the team has been fine-tuning on the side, even running as occasional Lampo specials. Beef tartare is hand cut local beef with mustard seed, anchovy, caper, radish, shallot, parsley, quail egg, and aioli. French onion soup is house bone broth with candy onion and brandy, topped with raclette and sourdough. And, in a dish Lampo regulars might recall as a special, fire roasted lobster is served in uni butter atop spaghetti a la chittara, with calabrian chili, oregano, and tomato.
Another former Lampo special, chicken liver pâté, became so popular that they decided to “retire” it and save it for Prime 109. Chicken liver mousse comes dressed with cherry mostarda, smoked hazelnuts, parsleyed parmesan, frico, and Earl Grey golden raisins.
Keeping with the theme, desserts are updated classics. The Ice Cream Sundae includes Splendora’s cardamom gelato and brown butter gelato, topped with hot fudge, miso caramel, salty peanut brittle, cookies, whipped cream, and, of course, a cherry on top. And, Lemon Meringue Pie builds atop a shortbread crust, with lemon, brûléed meringue, huckleberry sorbet, blueberry, and key lime.
The wine list belongs to Wine Director Cole and Associate Wine Director Allie Redshaw. “Tasting with her is remarkable,” Cole says of Allie. “The way she has honed her palate in the kitchen over the last few years allows her to key in on the specific aromas and flavors in a wine.” While Cole’s and Redhsaw’s tastes both lean towards the esoteric, their aim at Prime 109 is to have something for everyone. “Our goal,” says Allie, “is finding a balance between approachability and refined eccentricity.” And so, while there will be plenty of the hard-to-find pét-nats and orange wines that Cole and Redshaw enjoy, there will also be Napa Valley Cabernets for steakhouse traditionalists and lots of Virginia wines to match the local cuisine. Having overseen an exclusively Italian selection at Lampo for the past four years, Cole feels reinvigorated to be able to draw from wines from all over.
Prime 109 Associate Wine Director Allie Redshaw. Photo by Signe Clayton.
The Chef’s Counter
The Blanc Creatives custom wood-burning over and grill sit open to the restaurant, bordered on two sides by a marble counter, where guests can enjoy their meal while watching Redshaw and Scatena man the grill. Eventually, Redshaw plans to offer guests at the chef’s counter an omakase-style meal. Tell him how much you’d like to spend and some of your likes and dislikes, and he will take it from there. Or, just order a la carte and watch the show.
While a chef’s counter “omakase” experience might be a special occasion treat, the team wants Prime 109 to be somewhere you can go often. And so, Prime 109 eventually plans to add a bar menu with affordable sandwiches of dry-aged roast beef, house pastrami, and the Prime Burger – aged beef, American cheese, pickles, onions, and “Primal sauce,” on a sesame seed bun.
As for Hawkins’ cocktail program, this is next level stuff. An early disciple of the cocktail renaissance of the past two decades, Hawkins sees both positives and negatives in what it has wrought. One positive is obvious: better cocktails more widely available than ever before. A negative, however, he says, is the flood of opportunists to the industry who mask incompetence by elevating style over substance. Hawkins is all about attention-to-detail, but each detail, he says, must have a substantive purpose to enhance the guest’s experience. It’s not just for show. The term “ice program,” for example, may sound pretentious, but Hawkins says there are good reasons he devotes such an enormous amount of time to cutting and perfecting the size and shape of ice for each drink. Proper temperature, dilution rate, etc. Visit here for more details on Hawkins’ ambitious cocktail program.
In converting the space from bank to restaurant, with help from JAID + Figure and architect Stephanie Williams, the Prime 109 team was determined to preserve the natural elegance and nuances of the historic building. “The sheer scale and decadence of the existing elements of the space lended themselves to our take-off on a bank heist complete with a steak dinner,” says Amy Morris of JAID + Figure. “We played with scale large and small, from column treatments to glints of brass slicing through floors and climbing up vertical surfaces.” Morris credits Sanger Carpentry (banquettes and back bar), U-Fab (banquette fabric) and Lucent Lampworks (custom lighting) as vital to the result.
Using existing features of the bank, bells and whistles abound. The restrooms’ working fireplaces remain. A coat-check revives a dying courtesy. The bank’s former drive-thru is now valet parking. Two second-floor rooms for private events offer dramatic views of the restaurant below. And soon, basement vaults will host events as well.
When Bank of America announced in 2016 that it was leaving the building, exactly 100 years after it was built, Tim Hulbert, executive director of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, told C-VILLE Weekly: “It’s a pretty dramatic space. I suspect some smart entrepreneur will see the opportunity and seize it.”
Prime 109 is now open.