Just as pandemic babies are now populating the world, so too are restaurants produced by the pandemic. Chickadee opened last week in the former home of Bluegrass Grill and Bakery.
Owners Tricia Zawhorodny and fiancé David Stone turned to a common pastime to cope with the isolation of the pandemic: bread-baking. As they honed their brioche while social distancing, they started using it as a vehicle for breakfast sandwiches, some of them quite elaborate, drawing on Stone’s lengthy experience as a chef.
Another common effect of the pandemic is how the change in work schedules left some restaurant industry workers reconsidering whether to return to the grind that restaurant work can require. Stone has cooked in Charlottesville for years, most recently as sous chef of The Local. Like many industry veterans, when restaurants began to resume typical hours, Stone was unsure about the late nights his career had long demanded. Making restaurant life even less appealing was the pull of the toddler that Stone and Zawhorodny share.
Bread. Sandwiches. A better lifestyle. And a child at home.
Chickadee, a breakfast and lunch sandwich spot was born. “Dave and I wanted to continue in the industry after COVID, but during the daylight and with healthier work schedules,” said Zawhorodny.
This is very good news for Charlottesville sandwich-lovers. After working on their bread throughout the pandemic, they brought in baking expert Chris Martin to help them dial it in. The delicious bread they developed together serves as the foundation for a menu of epic sandwiches that showcase Stone’s work in the kitchen, severalofwhichare already receiving honorable mention on The Charlottesville 29 of Sandwiches.
Now open, Wednesday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch.
With more than 200 countries in the world, each with their own diverse cuisines, a city Charlottesville’s size could never begin to scratch the surface of them all. But, one by one, our food scene continues to expand, offering more cuisines than ever before. The latest addition is Venezuelan, brought here by a family still passionate about the food of their native land.
Arepas on Wheels, a traveling trailer serving arepas and other Venezuelan specialties, launches next week. When the Salazar-Gil family arrived in Virginia in 2016, they began sharing their food with friends and family. Feedback was so positive that they decided to turn it into a business. With Arepas on Wheels, Maria, her husband Fernando, and daughters Mafer and Ana are “wishing for the beautiful Venezuelan cuisine to be known around central Virginia,” said Maria.
The focus are arepas. What’s an arepa? It’s the iconic dish of Venezuela, often enjoyed at least once a day, whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many Venezuelans don’t even need a recipe. They know just how the dough should feel after combining warm water, salt, and precooked corn flour (such as Harina P.A.N.). From there, the dough is formed into a small ball, flattened into a circle, and cooked on a griddle until crispy on the outside with a soft and light interior. You can enjoy it as you wish, but Venezuelans tend to keep it simple – sliced open, and topped with margarine and cheese. In recent years, though, more elaborate fillings have become popular, like chicken salad or shredded beef.
Arepas on Wheels debuts this Wednesday, March 2, at Decipher Brewing, a brewery known for hosting top food trucks. For future dates, follow Arepas on Wheels on Facebook or Instagram.
The arepa is so beloved that decades ago, when a woman launched a family business selling arepas from a trailer in Queens, NY, she became one of the first food sensations of the internet. People called her The Arepa Lady. Her real name? Maria.
Like many chefs, Laura Fonner has long dreamed of her own restaurant. She just never dreamed it would be this one. For much of her career, Fonner imagined taking over Duner’s, the Ivy institution where she worked for seventeen years, and which she hoped to buy when its owner retired. But, life and a pandemic intervened last summer to set her on a new path, culminating this week with the opening of her first restaurant: Siren.
The restaurant results from a partnership with Champion Hospitality Group, which she left Duner’s for last June, first to launch a food truck, and then to help with projects like Champion Grill and Brasserie Saison. During the pandemic’s disruption of the industry, Fonner saw the work as a bridge to what she really coveted: her own place. “It was a pause in my world to figure out what I wanted to do next,” said Fonner.
That opportunity arose this summer when The Shebeen became available. She and Champion leapt at it. Unlike newly built cookie-cutter properties Fonner had seen on the market, The Shebeen space had the character and history Fonner sought. She has fond memories of eating maraschino cherries and orange slices at the bar as a child when her father frequented its previous tenant, Random Row. The Shebeen felt right. “There’s nothing in Charlottesville like it,” Fonner said.
A Space That Became Fonner
While full of character, the dark and time-worn pub needed a lot of work to transform into a venue suitable for the dining experience Fonner envisioned. “I initially thought it just needed a slap in the ass and a face lift,” said Fonner, “but it ended up needing a total renovation.” And so, for months, the chef poured herself into tireless reconstruction: refinishing the bar, tables and floors; tearing out and replacing the kitchen; building new walls and ceilings; and, more.
Without any design experience, Fonner admits she had no specific vision for the renovation. “All I knew is I wanted it to feel like I invited someone over to dinner in my own house,” said Fonner. Paradoxically, that lack of vision forced a piecemeal, organic approach whose result captures Fonner better than any design plan ever could. Siren is Fonner. It has her blood, sweat, and tears in it. Literally.
Bit by bit, with the help of family and friends, Fonner made gradual refinements and additions, each one infusing a bit more of Fonner into the space. Throughout the restaurant, the décor tells of Fonner’s life: mementos from her parents’ travels, gifts from friends, her grandmother’s artwork. “There is a story behind everything,” she said, and the result is an image of Fonner. “This looks exactly like me,” said Fonner. “And it’s weird because I never knew that this is what I looked like.”
Like the space, the food is all Fonner. Again, instead of using a formulaic template like many restaurants do, Fonner’s starting point was simply: what do I like to eat? Long days of renovation left food planning to nighttime, when a work-weary Fonner would fill notebooks with ideas for dishes. “Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and write down an idea,” said Fonner.
In homage to Fonner’s grandmother’s Greek roots, the menu tilts Mediterranean, with some American thrown in, too. And, the focus is seafood, Fonner’s favorite thing to cook. Even as Executive Chef of Duner’s, Fonner would always work the seafood station. “It’s so delicate, and you have to do it just right,” beamed Fonner.
Seafood plus Mediterranean means things like shrimp souvlaki sandwiches, tuna tartare with Calabrian chili aioli, and bowls of mussels and chorizo in a broth of tomato, fennel, and citrus. (Menu here!) And, one thing Fonner could never leave off the menu is dumplings, for which she is well known. “Everyone would expect dumplings,” said Fonner. Regulars visited Duner’s just for her dumplings. Chefs have called them the best thing they ate all year. And, celebrity judges on the Food Network raved about them in competitions that the dumplings helped Fonner win.
At Siren, the Mediterranean theme yields chicken gyro dumplings, another nod to her grandmother’s heritage. Fonner’s signature handmade dough encases ground chicken, spiced like gyro meat. “From there, I wanted to try to make it as close to what you would expect from a gryo, but in dumpling form,” Fonner said. And so, garnishes are house-made tzatziki, microgreens, pickled onion, poached tomato, and tirokafteri – a spicy, feta-based spread.
And then there is the Red Plate Special, Fonner’s joke at her own expense. A multi-time Food Network champion, Fonner’s only loss came when she was deducted points for serving her final dish on a red plate, which one judge would have preferred be white. At Siren, Fonner is using the gaudiest big red plate she could find to serve a rotating special of whole fish. “I try not to take myself too seriously,” said Fonner. “If I can’t make fun of myself, what’s the point?”
Serendipity –> Siren
Sometimes things fall into place. If Fonner had taken over Duner’s, as she once hoped, she never would have created a restaurant quite like this. The history and following of Duner’s would have compelled her to carry on its legacy, leaving little opportunity for Fonner to make her own mark. But, Siren? Siren is all Laura.
Which is very good news for Charlottesville.
Siren opens this Thursday, December 9 at 247 Ridge McIntire Rd.