Food lovers take note. Fry’s Spring Station has undergone a complete overhaul, including the injection of some serious culinary talent. First opened in 2010, the new incarnation opened Monday, and looks to be vastly improved.
Sure, there are interior renovations, like polished hardwood floors, fresh paint, and re-claimed wood community tables. The new setting is as handsome as it is welcoming. There is even an al fresco bar that sits half-outside and half-inside, offering an expansive view of the entire restaurant, which for seventy years housed an actual service station.
But, the real news is the kitchen talent in the ownership team. Founder of The Rock Barn, Ben Thompson is known in the industry as one of the area’s best chefs. A former cook at the much-missed Oxo, he went on to finish top of his class at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, with an award for “Excellence through Leadership.” That earned him coveted spots in two of the nation’s most acclaimed kitchens, Per Se and The French Laundry. When he returned to Virginia in 2009 to open The Rock Barn, it was a true gift to the Charlottesville food scene. As Fleurie’s Brian Helleberg once said: “To have Ben Thompson working his craft in Nelson County is a local foodie’s dream realized.”
Joining Thompson in overseeing the food is Tommy Lasley, once named one of Charlottesville’s rising stars. A culinary school classmate of Thompson, Lasley has cooked locally at Orzo, and also in the northeast at Sweetgrass Grill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, one of the nation’s groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurants. Thompson and Lasley first joined forces at Ivy Provisions, where owner PK Kamath brought them on board to revamp the place, with great results. They are now doing the same for Fry’s Spring Station, where Kamath is also a co-owner. The opportunity arose last year when former co-owner Robert Sawrey (Downtown Grille) decided it was time to retire and sell his ownership interest. As one of Sawrey’s partners, Kamath sought to replicate the success Thompson and Lasley have had at Ivy Provisions. And, as a former Fry’s Spring resident, Thompson saw it as a great chance to jump back into restaurants.
L to R: Ben Thompson, Tommy Lasley, and PK Kamath. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.
The concept behind the reboot is to bring the lessons of fine dining to a community restaurant. Thompson observes that many aspiring young chefs follow a standard path up the culinary ladder: moving from one restaurant to a better one, again and again, where “better” often means fancier. But, what happens once you’ve reached the fanciest restaurants of all, and find yourself serving food accessible only to certain palates and budgets? For Thompson, the answer was to return to what he views as a chef’s basic role: feeding people. “Our job here is to feed the community,” says Thompson.
And so, Thompson and Lasley aim to take the fundamentals of a well-trained chef at a sophisticated restaurant and apply them to food that is accessible, affordable, and nutritious. Fry’s Spring Station is “not about a chef blowing guests away with his skills,” says Thompson. Rather, it’s about being stewards of the Fry’s Spring community, offering “food that we would feel good about serving our families several times a week,” says Thompson.
But, it’s not just in the kitchen where Thompson are Lasley are applying wisdom from fine dining. It’s management, too. For that, Thompson looks to the example of a good friend, The Ivy Inn’s Angelo Vangelopoulos. At The Ivy Inn, says Thompson, Vangelopoulos is the paradigm of good restaurant leadership. He hires good people and treats them well. Over time, says Thompson, that breeds a culture of community and success. Thompson seeks to emulate the approach at Fry’s Spring Station.
The New Fry’s Spring Station
What’s the result of all of this? Well, you know those ubiquitous shopping mall Italian chain restaurants? Imagine one that doesn’t suck. If my initial visits are any indication, Fry’s Spring Station achieves the cheerful, casual, family-friendly ethos of the best of those restaurants, but upgrades the experience across the board.
The menu, after all, is not groundbreaking. It’s appetizers, pizzas, pastas, salads, sandwiches, and sides. But, the difference is the attention to detail, in cooking, sourcing, and service. Salad dressings are made in-house. Produce comes from The Local Food Hub, meats from The Rock Barn, and sandwich bread from Albemarle Baking Company. And, the kombucha is, of course, Barefoot.
The pizza has received an overhaul, too, with a new dough and a refined process, which recalled the earliest days of Thompson’s career. Before culinary school, Thompson started out making pizzas at several joints in Colorado, where he grew up. “That’s how I learned to cook,” said Thompson. And, Lasley was once Chef de Cuisine of a popular Connecticut restaurant known for its pizzas.
Drawing on his experience with pizza ovens, Thompson is excited about not just the pizzas, but also one slightly unusual menu item: manciatta, like a salad atop flatbread. They roll out pizza dough, top it with olive oil and herbs, and fire it in the pizza oven. Then, they top it again with a little more olive oil, and your choice of three different salads. Thompson’s favorite is the steak version, where shaved lettuces are tossed in vinaigrette, with grilled steak, red onions, asiago cheese, and chilis. The dressing and salad flavors seep into the bread, which Thompson recommends tearing off one piece at a time to enjoy with the other ingredients. I tried one, and it was a delicious. A refreshing and satisfying weeknight meal.
Consistent with the community feel, much of the food is intended for sharing. Sides like red beet agrodolce, sautéed seasonal greens, or, Thompson’s favorite, shaved Brussels sprouts with Pancetta, come in regular and family sizes. Salads likewise are available small and large, and include crowd-pleasers like Caesar, a Wedge, and Butter Lettuce with strawberries and goat cheese. And pastas, too, offer size options, including penne with tomato and basil which my children declared among the best in town.
There is even a a wide selection of large format bottles of beer, also intended for sharing, which Thompson says were chosen to pair well with the food. Other libations also appear well-curated, included a nice slate of local beers on tap, and approachable wines like a Vina Galana Verdejo for which the menu predicts: “Try a glass, you’ll soon order a porron for the table!”
Pizza, pasta, paninis, and porrons. We can work with that.