Written and Photographed by Annie Leister
Until recent years, Midtown Charlottesville’s West Main Street corridor was a bit of a no-man’s land. This stretch of two-way traffic and tree-lined sidewalks leads from the University of Virginia campus to the downtown pedestrian mall and for a long time seemed like a lost mile that visitors would hurry through to get from one to the other.
The corridor had its heyday in the early 20th century as the nearby Amtrak station increased travel to and from Washington, DC, and new car dealerships and department stores fueled our little city’s expansion. But when the mid-century suburbia craze hit, West Main went into decline and many locales shut down for good.
As Charlottesville earned a reputation as a wine tourism and wedding destination in the mid-2000s, prominent hotels started setting up shop on West Main to take advantage of unmet demand for accommodation. High-rise apartment complexes and boutique restaurants soon followed and Midtown, as it’s often called these days, became the fastest-growing area in the city. I moved to Cville in 2012 and even since then I’ve witnessed West Main change, expand (especially upward), and become a destination in its own right.
Let’s take a walk along West Main, starting with lunch at one of the mainstays of the corridor, a tiny diner with a big sign and a bigger reputation.
Mel’s Café (719 West Main) is one of the few African-American-owned businesses in what used to be a hub for Charlottesville’s African-American community before controversial urban renewal policies took effect in the ’60s. Owner Melvin Walker opened Mel’s in 1984 and has persevered through the neighborhood’s slow years to make this no-frills spot a favorite of every kind of local folks to be seen in Cville.
On the outdoor patio facing Main Street you’ll find lawyers, construction crews, grad students, and running groups all chowing down. The menu of soul food and sandwiches is extensive, but the One-Eye Cheeseburger is my pick for the best burger in town for combined value of price and tastiness. At $4.45, this perfectly medium-greasy burger topped with a crispy fried egg has home-cooked flavor at a fast-food price. Also check out the red beans and rice and the fried chicken.
For a dress-up dinner, we’ll head to Orzo (416 West Main). Serving Mediterranean delights and showcasing local artwork since 2006, Orzo is inside Main Street Market, itself a pioneering culinary destination in the neighborhood. This bright purple warehouse is full of fine food purveyors like The Spice Diva, a fun stop to make while waiting for your reservation. Open up the glass jars of spices, salts, and loose-leaf teas—sniffing encouraged. The store also hosts cooking classes featuring local chefs and food personalities (including Pete Evans, a chef and partner at Orzo).
I recommend ordering the chef’s special, whatever it may be. Chef Pete is a master with vegetables and seasonal spotlights. But to start, don’t miss the seared halloumi appetizer. The crisp-yet-creamy Greek cheese is served in an addictive, briny broth with ouzo and a hint of tomato (plus toasted baguette wedges to make sure you finish it all, down to the last swipe of the bowl). To go with dinner, choose a glass or bottle from an extensive yet user-friendly wine list with categories like “Racy and Spicy” and “Soft and Layered.”
Just a block down you’ll find another dinner option in Maya (633 West Main), a southern-focused restaurant that recently celebrated 10 years in business. While Maya is known for comfort food staples with some seasonal twists, it’s also one of your best bets for drinks. Midtown—and Maya in particular—is my go-to Cville neighborhood for a classy cocktail when I want to skip the crowds and clubs of the university and the Downtown Mall. While full dinner service ends at 10:00 pm, Maya’s bar and lounge area are open until 2:00 am, seven days a week, and have an arsenal of late-night bar snacks.
Maya also stands out for its hospitality and thoughtful staff. The attention to detail is evident in servers’ excellent response to dietary concerns—something close to my heart, as my wonderful mom has severe diet restrictions. Since so much on the menu is house-made, many dishes can be modified to be vegan or to exclude gluten, dairy, or soy.
And for those not concerned in the least about food allergies or diet, the mac and cheese here is my favorite of any served in Cville. And you can get it à la carte, which I have done as part of a shameless dinner comprised of two orders of mac and cheese and a Country Collins (a signature cocktail with local gin). Keeping in the comfort food vein, the baby-back ribs in house BBQ sauce are also fantastic.
Snowing in Space
For a quick but memorable coffee before you get on the road, check out Snowing in Space (705 West Main), a flashy new storefront that produces, serves, and cans cold brew nitro coffee in several house blends. If you’re feeling like a road beer but not willing to drink and drive (never a good idea, folks!), pick up a four-pack of the Gimme Dat, a bitter, complex cold brew much like a stout.
Snowing in Space just opened in April but already has coffee available in local breweries, ciderworks, and restaurants, and they return the local promotion favor by carrying snacks and desserts made by Cville businesses. Since your coffee is naturally delicious without added cream, sugar, or fake nonsense, treat yourself to one of Paradox Pastry’s flaky, full-butter ham and cheese croissants or a small-batch pop tart from Wonderment.
Annie Leister was born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch country, but is now a southern transplant enjoying grits, red-eye gravy, and Virginia wine. When not eating or drinking à la south, Annie works as a freelance writer, editor, and interpreter.