Ryan Caira '17
Best Bar in Charlottesville: Miller’s Downtown
Charged with picking the best place for a drink in Cville, I’d pick Miller’s Downtown. This town is chock-full of worthy watering holes, but few of them have the special local charm of a Miller’s. I can think of only two other townie joints with that kind of enchantment, one of which, C&O, would’ve been my pick until two nights ago, when the spell was broken by the paisley-tie-and-velvet-vest-wearing hipster cocktail artist who’s taken over the downstairs bar lorded over us his authority to ban customers he doesn’t like the look of—viz., us. (The other, Durty Nelly’s, dropped out of the running when the bartender had to shut down drink service because a clogged up toilet had overflowed into the barroom.)
Miller’s has got it all. Walk in the door and you’re greeted with friendly service and a homey air of re-circulated cigarette smoke, a smell pregnant with the nostalgia for all the best salt-of-the-earth establishments. I’ve never been a smoker, but having grown up going to restaurants that maintained the smoking- and non-smoking section division, places for me retain a kind of everyman’s charm. The food is hearty and unpretentious. When a friend visiting from abroad asked me to take her to a place where she could get the ‘authentic’ American burger experience, I took her to Miller’s. And it’s a fine place to go and just grab a drink, the most basic criterion for any good bar. They have their fair share of Islay whisky, the tap and bottled beer is quality, and the bartender won’t criticize you for mistaking Amaro for Chartreuse—which you would never order.
They’ve got regular live music, and the bands can groove. (Let’s not forget that Miller’s is where Dave Matthews got his start, first as a bartender, then as a regular performer on what might be Charlottesville’s smallest stage.) And, as far as I’ve seen, they’ve got the most interesting clientele in town. Where the Corner seethes with undergrads and insecurity, and neighbors on the Mall aspire to gaudy New York heights, Miller’s is just Miller’s, a regular ole small-town Virginia drinking spot. They’ve got pool, darts, and townies. It’s a good place to be a regular, a good place to hide out, and a good place to meet someone new. As far as I’ve seen, it’s solid in a way that no other bar in town is. And for all that, I’d say it merits the No.1 spot.
Best Restaurant in Charlottesville: Mas
With all the New York money residing in its perimeter of horse-farm estates, Charlottesville manages to maintain what is, for such a small town, an unusually high concentration of superb restaurants. It’s hard to pick a best restaurant in town. There’s no shortage of greats—The Ivy Inn, Tavola, the Local, Public Fish and Oyster, and El Bebedero are all noble contenders. But it’s the city’s tapas bar that earns the number one spot here.
For starters, its Belmont location automatically promotes it to a higher tier of competition. There’s something ineffably charming about the neighborhood, though the frequent 1L firm outings to the Local erode that feeling a little bit, so that going out to eat in Belmont feels like more of an event than eating in most other parts of town. The plate of olives they lay out for you when you sit down helps, too.
Mas sits comfortably in the prime seat chiefly for one reason: its wine list. There’re plenty of restaurants in town where you can get good to great wine, many of which I’ve already named, but Mas has a broad selection of consistently excellent wines at a good value; and for a wine list, value is the hardest thing to come by. It has an advantage, of course: most of the wines are Spanish, and Spanish wines haven’t quite taken off in the States like French or Californian wines have, so they should be well priced even somewhere like Food of All Nations or Market Street Market. But Spanish wines are also very tasty, and at Mas, they know how to pick them.
Still, most people who’ve been to Mas probably think first of the food, and they’ve got dozens of delicious plates at all sorts of price points. By which I mean, you can go there and have a small bite or a filling meal without paying as much as you would at, say, the other restaurants of its ilk, the datey uptown places like Cville’s pseudo speak-easy Alley Light or its neighbor, the disconcertingly named Red Pump Kitchen. Another fun piece of the Mas experience, and no small part of the reason I enjoy it so much, is that as a tapas place, you can try a bunch of the menu at once, mitigating against the chance that you’ll order the wrong thing and have a bad meal.
I’ve had restaurant experiences in Charlottesville better than any I’ve had in Mas; but, overall, both the peak and the average Mas experience is high enough that I think it earns the number one spot.