Charlottesville's Best Donuts, As Ranked by Children and Their Sprinkles


John Melcon ‘19
Dad & Donut Connoisseur

Charlottesville is well-known for its winery scene, craft brewery scene, and Vineyard Vines scene. Not to be ignored, though, is greater-Albemarle County’s ever-improving donut scene. Special Agent Dale Cooper could get along fine here.

The author with his enthusiastic co-critics. Photo John Melcon /  Virginia Law Weekly

The author with his enthusiastic co-critics. Photo John Melcon / Virginia Law Weekly

Since what follows is an attempt at ranking C’ville’s finest donut emporia, let me say a word about methodology. Over the past two years, my four kids and I have spent most Saturday mornings on a Daddy-Day errand or adventure. Those trips invariably begin with donuts, giving our squad ample opportunity to evaluate all the local offerings. Still, ranking donuts is about as subjective as ranking law schools by “best professors,” and just to make things even more arbitrary, I’ve delegated the entire task to my children. The sprinkle scores below represent the results of a sophisticated voting process, which transpired last Thursday at the kitchen table.

 

Duck Donuts

Overall Score: 19 Sprinkles

Duck Donuts began in 2006 when Russ DiGilio and Robin Griffith decided to remedy the lack of donuts in their favorite Outer Banks beach town: Duck, N.C. The company’s unique business model proved to be a hit, and entrepreneurial tourists prevailed upon the founders to let them open franchises as far away as Huntington Beach, Cal.

Charlottesville’s Duck Donuts opened in 2015 at The Shops at Stonefield and has been serving scrumptious Maple Bacon, Vanilla Oreo, and Peanut Butter Raspberry donuts to Pottery Barn and Lululemon patrons ever since. Don’t expect any display cases here—every order is custom made before your very eyes. My eight-year-old calculates that there are over 800 possible frosting, topping, and drizzle combinations, not including holiday specials. Visit on a weekend morning and you’ll find the place packed with Charlottesville’s middle-class families, all probably wishing they were on the Outer Banks but settling instead for soccer practice or swim team.

 

Carter Mountain Orchard

Score: 16 Sprinkles

              Shortly after sunrise on June 4, 1781, Thomas Jefferson crested the top of Carter’s Mountain, spyglass in hand. Having been warned that British soldiers were closing in on Monticello, Jefferson wanted to see for himself. Moments later, Jefferson spotted the redcoats, dashed back to Monticello, and escaped off the mountain a mere five minutes before his would-be captors arrived.

It’s a good thing the Chiles family wasn’t around serving hot apple cider donuts on Carter’s Mountain back in 1781. Could anyone have faulted Jefferson for stopping to order a dozen of these delectable fall favorites, a delay that might have left him licking cinnamon sugar off his fingers in British custody? Lucky for us, we live in an era where “Carter’s Mountain” is synonymous with the unrivaled pleasure of savoring a fresh cider donut on a crisp autumn morning while enjoying the best views in town. In case you’re wondering, Carter Mountain Orchard and its donut bakery reopen in 45 days on March 30. But who’s counting?

 

Krispy Kreme

Score: 16 Sprinkles

Long-time locals know that Krispy Kreme opened its first Charlottesville location in the late 1990’s (in what is now the Raising Canes). The company shuttered the store a few years later amidst corporate losses blamed on the Atkins Diet. Fortunately, everyone on the Atkins Diet has since given up, and Krispy Kreme returned from its decade-long externship in 2017.

If you’re lucky, you’ll pull up to the gleaming, glassy Fifth Street Station location and find the legendary “Hot Light” illuminated. This neon sign, which has much the same effect as Pavlov’s metronome, indicates that the mesmerizing Rube Goldberg contraption inside is switched on, pumping out piles of fresh confections. I’m told Krispy Kreme sells many varieties of donuts, but if you ask for anything other than the melt-in-your-mouth Original Glazed, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s also worth noting that the Original Glazed has long played a leading role in Charlottesville’s most famous late-night dessert: the Grillswith. The fabled Grillswith, available at The White Spot and several other Corner establishments, consists of two buttered and grilled Krispy Kreme donuts topped with a mound of smooth vanilla ice cream.

Take that, Dr. Atkins.

 

Sugar Shack Donuts

Score: 13 Sprinkles

Richmond-based Sugar Shack sold its first donut in 2013. Six year later, the company boasts eleven locations across Virginia and D.C. The Charlottesville store opened in 2018, making it the new kid on the block. And what a block it is: Sugar Shack occupies a storefront on Main Street under the long morning shadow of Charlottesville's newest trust-fund-baby housing monstrosity: The Standard. 

Like the surrounding apartment buildings, Sugar Shack donuts seem to embody a bigger-is-better philosophy. And while you won’t get to customize your toppings, there’s something for everyone, including varieties like “Sea Salt Caramel,” “Mud Pot,” and “Chocolate Butterfinger.” If it’s protein you’re after, order one of their breakfast sandwiches made between two donuts, then come back at night for a “Luther Burger” with donuts in place of buns. Don’t forget to follow them on social media: Every day they announce a way to get yourself a free house donut.

 

Carpe Donut

Score: 11 Sprinkles

In the mediocre 1980’s classic Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams challenges a bunch of future Z Society members to make their lives extraordinary by pondering the Latin phrase “carpe diem,” i.e., “Seize the Day.” If you’ve reached the depressing conclusion that your own conformist tendencies are too strong to be overcome by Latin verse, at least you can still “Seize the Donut” at Charlottesville’s homegrown donut catering outfit.

A true family operation, Carpe Donut is best known for serving up small-batch cider donuts from its whimsical cart at weddings and other events. The donuts themselves are a bit overpriced, but what you get is a bona fide organic treat. Regular storefront hours are nonexistent, so your best shot at seizing one of their products is on Saturday mornings, when the owners open up their kitchen for a few hours (winter) or set up shop at the downtown farmer’s market (summer).

 

Dunkin Donuts

Score: 9 Sprinkles

You might think Boston is on a roll these days, what with their big wins in the World Series and the Super Bowl. But when it comes to Beantown’s famous donut chain, they’re lagging behind in freshness and quality. Still, I’ll admit that as a Northeasterner myself there’s something predictably nostalgic about biting into a French Cruller or a Boston Kreme, or grabbing a fistful of Munchkins.

Despite being outclassed by the others on the list, Dunkin Donuts has a few redeeming qualities: extended hours, mobile ordering, a drive thru, and some pretty tasty iced coffee. Maybe that’s why Dunkin Donuts remains the fourth largest fast food chain in America, loading the stomachs of the human race with almost 3 billion donuts per year.