Charlottesville's Oldest Restaurant Is Famous for Its Mac and Cheese
When you first walk into The Virginian, a slim white-brick storefront nestled on the Corner—a strip of shops and restaurants adjacent to the University of Virginia’s campus—you’re immediately struck by a sense of comfort. No matter the time of day or season, an inexplicable wave of warmth pervades the long, narrow splinter of a bar. Maybe it’s the dim glow from Edison lightbulbs, or the free flow of pints of Virginia’s signature hard cider. But The Virginian is the kind of place that instantly feels familiar.
The Virginian’s navy blue awning and rustic wooden booths have been a staple of the college town for just short of a century; the restaurant, which opened in 1923, celebrates its 97th birthday this year. From its Jeffersonian architecture to its secret societies, The University of Virginia is a school steeped in tradition—The Virginian, a long-standing fixture on the Corner, stays true to this theme, proudly touting its status as Charlottesville’s oldest restaurant.
The Virginian has certainly adapted to the times—during prohibition, it briefly transformed into a soda fountain—but part of its undeniable charm is how little it has changed. On trips back to Charlottesville, alumni can expect to find pretty much the same scene waiting at 1521 University Avenue, the only real exception being a new generation of students wearing the blue Virginian staff shirts.
The Virginian is a place of pure democracy: Seated in the restaurant’s dozen or so wooden booths, you’ll find nurses on lunch break from the nearby hospital, university administrators and businesspeople, local families and campus visitors, and, of course, groups of students. At night, the restaurant converts into a bar for upperclassmen who have developed crafty solutions to the lack of standing room— they pack five-deep into the booth benches and sway to country music. (When I was a student, we’d stand on the tables; this has since been barred due to fire hazards.)
Each booth is marked with a gold-plated number, and mirrors lining the walls give the illusion of a space much bigger than it actually is. According to owner Andy McClure, the pressed tin ceiling and vintage photographs decorating the walls “enhance the restaurant’s historic feel,” but “there’s more to love between these walls than just ambiance.” By this, he refers to the Virginian’s food—specifically, the “ever-illustrious” Stumble Down Mac and Cheese, which has developed its own cult following.
The Virginian’s signature Stumble Down Mac and Cheese is a timeless crowd favorite. It even has its own hashtag, #HowDoYouMac, which seems to be a philosophical question, as the mac doesn’t leave much room for customization. The only real decision you have to make is if you want a starter portion (only $5 and plenty filling) or an entrée size ($10, double the mac).
The Virginian’s mac and cheese has everything you’re looking for in the classic dish—it’s comforting, yet far from ordinary. Twisty cavatappi noodles are robed in a creamy pepper jack cheese sauce, which delivers a slightly spicy kick; as if it could get any more indulgent, each bowl is topped with a housemade cheddar potato cake. The starter size arrives in a trademark clay brown terrine, the extra-crispy potato cake sitting on top to seal in all that warmth and molten cheese.
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