Charlottesville has a fair share of corporate coffee chains-- there are a few Starbucks' and a pretty popular Greenberrys, but here I'm going to focus on the cool mom-&-pop coffee shops that make amazing non-corporate drinks.
The Downtown Mall
At this point in time, and for at least the last decade, Charlottesville's niche coffee scene revolves around an all-important nucleus: The Downtown Mall. East Main Street became a serious community center for Charlottesville when the the head of the county moved from Scottsville to Charlottesville in 1761.
Charlottesville literally sprung up around this street that grew to accommodate a hotel, bank, theater and county buildings. The Downtown Mall as we know it today, designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, emerged in 1976 when East Main Street was converted into a pedestrian mall. The coffee shops that exist in and around the Downtown Mall help define and nurture the personality of Charlottesville's community.
This is a colorful and happy coffee shop on the downtown mall-- a great location right in the middle of it all. Before Cafe Cubano the space was occupied by a different coffee house called Higher Grounds. Cafe Cubano makes great coffee but also has a kitchen with some decent food business. The food is tasty and filling-- great breakfasts and lunches. The coffee is all fair trade/organic/rainforest protected.
Owner Tony Jorge is a great guy who sponsors the arts-- the is one of the main ways that Cafe Cubano helps to foster a culture of interdisciplinary exchange in Charlottesville. Cafe Cubano is one of many coffee houses that participates in First Friday-- a monthly art event where Charlottesvillians come downtown and go from place to place, viewing all of the art on display. Usually, each venue will feature a single artist. Galleries launch large shows at this time, but smaller venues like record shops, restaurants, and ... coffeehouses also participate. (Click here for a list of First Friday venues).
And if you will pardon one sentence of shameless promotion: my sister Blair Barbour (www.blairbarbour.com) will be showcasing her artwork here during July 2012!
First of all, what a great name for a coffeehouse. The Mudhouse is a classic tale of self-made success. Two young entrepreneurs, John & Lynelle, started off in 1993 pushing a moving coffee cart up and down the downtown mall. In 1995, they set up shop at the very end of the mall and developed a faithful & loyal clientele.
The Mudhouse attracts some unique slices of society, and that was their goal all along. "We wanted it to be a space of open dialogue for the whole community," they say. "We wanted to bring together artists, builders, professors, poets, lawyers, singers, painters, Goths, craftsmen, cyberheads, skatepunks and the city council…well, you get the idea. This is what coffeehouses have been for hundreds of years for people from Vienna and Paris to Boston and Berserkeley…."
First and foremost it is a student hangout. There always seem to be high school and college kids hanging out on their laptops and writing papers. Before their renovation the atmosphere was hip and a bit edgy, with bright red walls and crazy furniture. Post renovation, the place seems to have a more mature vibe to it-- slate colors and a more open and airy interior design. One amazing thing about the Mudhouse is that they have managed to establish themselves as a high quality art gallery-- probably due to John's great critical eye. They always have amazing art work on the walls, listed for high prices. Though I never imagine how the students working on their papers can afford to buy this art, someone certainly comes and buys it all, for the shows here are always extremely high quality and they always seem to sell out.
They also have another coffee shop in Crozet, and 2 satellite locations-- mini espresso bars located inside of a gas stations. Coffee beans come from Lexington Coffee Roasting Company.
Some pictures of the downtown location:
CVille Coffee is a haven for busy parents (which Charlottesville has plenty of!) There is a play area, a huge kitchen, and plenty of space. Parents can let their kids play while they have just a coffee or a full blown meal from the kitchen. Arts and crafts are usually on display for sale, a community bookshelf provides reading material for those who didn't bring their own, and there are some musical performances as well. Clubs meet here, and you see some college kids and a little bit of the laptop crowd, but this is more of a place where you see parents with their kids.
The quality of the coffee doesn't pull at my heart strings as much as the other coffee shops, but the breakfast burritos are great, and the environment is very family friendly. It's a great community gathering place.
See below for the inside view:
Shenandoah Joe Coffee Roasters started off as a wholesale roastery. They would take walk-in business for coffee by-the-pound, but there was no barista counter and no coffee to drink for sale-- just fresh roasted beans. This is how I first encountered Shenandoah Joe. I'll always remember-- I had just had breakfast at the Bluegrass Grill, and I really liked their house coffee; no, more than that: it was one of the best cups of coffee I had ever had. I asked what the secret was and they say said it was from Shenandoah Joe. I left the breakfast joint on my vespa and headed directly there to buy a pound. When I walked in the warehouse door there was a guy roasting beans in a really interesting-looking roasting machine-- it was huge and the beans were being stirred around and around. The beans were at a critical moment, so I got to watch as he finished the process before he got us some coffee.
A few months later they opened up their own shop. It's a bit off the beaten path from the downtown mall, but seriously, the amazing coffee was worth the drive. The new shop roasted the beans but also had spacious guest seating and a full barista counter. I love their Traditional Cappucino (a really short cappuccino, like a cortado) made with Long Frog espresso. Not gonna lie-- I still order this espresso every month in NYC because I haven't found a local coffee that I like as much! They've now been in the new space for several years, and going strong!
<-----Shenandoah Joe's interior
You can see the roastery takes up the back half of the store space, while the counter and seating takes up the front half. The best part is going there when they are roasting the coffee- it's the most incredible aroma.
below: an espresso & traditional cappuccino from Shenandoah Joe
The Farmers Market
Charlottesville Farmers Market is an amazing place. Not only do some of the greatest local farms pop up with the freshest veggies; the coffeeshops make appearances as well. C'Ville Coffee is usually there serving brew and their famous honey bites. Shenandoah Joe also is usually there pouring. Cafe Cubano & Mudhouse don't show up because their storefronts are literally a block away.
First Friday is a pretty awesome monthly event held by the City of Charlottesville. Several other cool cities have similar events, so you may have heard of the concept before. On the First Friday of every month the Downtown Mall hosts a special community event that focuses specifically on art-- all the galleries rotate the artists monthly and you can walk from gallery to gallery and see all the new exhibitions and meet the artists. Galleries participate, but so do most of the coffee shops and a handful of restaurants and retail stores.
Rather than outsource, Fleurie Restaurant (pictured left) and Blue Grass Grill are one of several restaurants that serve up locally roasted Shenandoah Joe coffee. The restaurant scene-- like elsewhere-- has been focused on farm-to-table elements for at least the last decade. Local cheeses, wines, vegetables and meats are regularly featured in several restaurants. Local coffees and teas have become a part of this renaissance in the last 5 years or so.
Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar
Tea Houses seem to be the siblings of coffee houses. I'll always remember the first time I came here-- Years ago I walked up the wood staircase and opened the doors at the top to a whimsical and seemingly magical environment: persian carpets, booths with hanging fabrics, couches and pillows, a huge winding "tree trunk" that climbed up the wall and held various tea accoutrement in its nooks and crannies. I read the menu and on a whim ordered Silver Needle, because it said Chinese emperors had once favored it. It was such an amazing tea experience- my first high quality white tea. Since then I've had many other great tea experiences here-- the menu rotates seasonally and focuses on the best quality teas.
Twisted Branch also sponsors the arts-- but not paintings/prints like most of the coffee shops. They'll clear away tables on a raised part of the floor that acts like a stage and have small bands play at night; usually jazz combos and small folk bands.