To celebrate 29 days remaining until tipoff of the basketball season, and the fact that Route 29 is the main transportation artery that serves the John Paul Jones Arena, we're going to give you Streaking the Lawn's guide to basketball game days.
Basketball is a different beast than football when it comes to game day. While attending a Virginia football game is frequently an all day campaign, going to a basketball game is more of a surgical strike for a variety of reasons.
- The weather in October and November in Central Virginia is great. January and February...not so much.
- You don't have to devote as much time strolling to the venue.
- Football game start times of noon and 3:30 tend to line up well with the typical meal schedule, while 7:00 basketball games present the "early dinner/late dinner" dilemma. Do I eat at 5:30 or wait until 9:30?
Our football gameday guide is here, and that advice is worth taking if you are planning on making a day or weekend out of a trip to Charlottesville to see Tony Bennett and his charges. So consider this guide a companion piece for those of you planning to ride in with the increasingly early sunset and ride out that night. We start with those unfortunate souls coming down Route 29 from the north.
From the North
The approach into Charlottesville from above is a huge line of strip shopping centers of varying quality, and the eateries are almost entirely chain restaurants. As you approach the City, the frequency with which you find yourself stopped at a traffic light will increase, and your stomach may start to register complaints about the lack of food. Here are our picks to fill up.
I'm Starving and Late for Tipoff!: You're going to chicken row!! On the right hand side of 29 as you roll into the City are Chick-Fil-A, Popeye's, KFC, and the reigning king of drive-thru chicken service Raising Cane's. The fries are sad, their Texas toast pedestrian at best, but it does not matter because the chicken fingers at Cane's are absolutely awesome. Also, they are a frequent supporter of the Virginia basketball team, so you're paying back the love.
Make it Fast: So, several years back, some intrepid New York culinary reporter came into town searching for a mysterious man considered the best Szechuan chef in the country, possibly the world. When he published his account of the search that lead him to Charlottesville, Peter Chang-mania was touched off in the town. Chang subsequently vanished - a move he is well known for - but returned to open a restaurant with his name on the door. What many people may not know is the original restaurant where Chang was found,Taste of China, is right on 29 and serves up some great food fast in the Albemarle Square Shopping Center.
If you're looking for something a little more outside the box, check out Zzaam Korean Grill. It's not on the right side of 29, so you'll need to be comfortable with U-turns, but their menu is healthy, filling, and fast. Another option for those craving a taste of the Downtown Mall's well-known dumpling shop, Marco & Luca has a second location in the Seminole Square Shopping Center.
I Can Wait: Despite the fact that what you're driving through looks like a wasteland of chain restaurants, you've actually got a strong lineup of fine dining establishments to choose from along the way. The aforementioned Peter Chang's China Grill is not far from the JPJ and is highly recommended to anyone looking for real Szechuan food, not the Americanized menus at most Chinese establishments. If you've got a taste for some tandoori preparations, Milan Indian Cuisine is a well-regarded spot on the right hand side as you enter the City.
For less adventurous diners, the Aberdeen Barn is a Charlottesville landmark that sticks to highly priced steak and potatoes. Another option is Parallel 38, a trendy new(er) restaurant that specializes in small plates of Mediterranean inspired fare.
From the West
There are two primary routes into the City from the west. You can get off Interstate 64 well west of the City and drive down route 250 through some lovely scenery into the City. The other option is to stick with Interstate 64 until Exit 118, and then enter the City through the Fontaine area. Each offers you some options here.
I'm Starving and Late for Tipoff!: It's not a drive-thru, but Zazus can get you a meal and on your way in fairly short order, and is just off Route 250. Zazus did the whole burrito wraps menu long before Chipolte ever came to town, and have served legions of UVA students. Their location is super convenient if you're headed anywhere near JPJ.
Make it Fast: Allow us to introduce you to the excellence that is Ivy Provisions. The little building on the right as you enter the City on route 250, they specialize in high quality sandwiches and other assorted local goods. Slightly further out, is the famous Bellair Market. A gas station with a tremendously popular sandwich counter, Bellair is a lunchtime mainstay in the Charlottesville area that keeps visitors returning again and again.
I Can Wait: Duner's is another Charlottesville landmark. The name sounds like a family-style joint, the building looks like a family-style joint, and the decor inside looks like a family-style joint, and the food that comes out of the kitchen is far better than any family-style joint you've ever visited. Be forewarned, if you plan to hit up Duner's on the way home from a game, you probably need to beat the crowd, because a lot of people usually have the same idea.
The Fontaine area has a wealth of possibilities for those that have a little time to spend on their dining experience. Fry's Spring Station is a converted gas station that has done very well on a prominent corner in the City by specializing in wood fired pizza. Another Fontaine favorite is Thai 99 if you're looking for some east Asian cuisine.
From the South
Coming from the south up 29 is a beautiful drive. The price you pay for all that scenery is a lack of many food options. In fact, if the limited options listed don't tickle your fancy, keep driving up 29 until you hit our suggestions on the north side of the City.
I'm Starving and Late for Tipoff!: If you're coming up Route 29, enjoy the concession stands in the arena. If you're coming up from the southern reaches of Albemarle County via Route 20, then you've got the option of The Market at Mill Creek. Same menu as Bellair Market, much shorter lines.
Make it Fast: If you pulled up the football gameday story, you''ll notice that "Best Pizza" is not a category. There's a reason for that, and it is the crushing dominance of Dr. Ho's Humble Pie in the Charlottesville pizza scene. Pro tip: If you're in a hurry, call in your order when you're about 20 minutes away and get it to go.
I Can Wait: If your schedule permits you to amble into the Charlottesville area in the early afternoon prior to a non-Sunday game, then check out Pippen Hill Farm. The scenery is incredible, there's wine, but what sets the place apart from other wineries is the menu in their restaurant. It's simply one of the best lunch experiences in the greater Charlottesville area.
You could also spend more time at Dr. Ho's. Either way, you can't go wrong.
From the East
Drivers arriving from the east of Charlottesville have two major options as they depart Interstate 64 on Exit 124 to Route 250. The first is the Pantops area, the first commercial looking area you will see. The second is venturing into downtown Charlottesville.
I'm Starving and Late for Tipoff!: If you're in this much of a hurry, going downtown is not an option. You'll have to stay on Route 250, and it's probably chicken time again. Bojangles has a brand new location on the left side of the road, and Chick-Fil-A will have a new location as well on the right whenever they finish the thing.
Make it Fast: Just off Route 250 on the left hand side is Charlottesville's very own Sticks. The kebob themed restaurant serves fairly healthy food seriously fast. It's easy to get in and out in under an hour with a good meal in your belly. If you're able to get downtown, Market Street Market has an excellent sandwich counter, not to mention a decent craft beer selection.
I Can Wait: With time on your hands, you must go downtown, park, and enjoy the wide variety of options available to you. Reviewing the options on the Downtown Mall alone would take another 1500 words, so we'll offer you three places that are a bit off the beaten path. Lampo opened within the last year in a little hole in the wall south of the Belmont Bridge, and has been pretty much packed ever since. The owners imported a 3 ton wood fired oven from Italy to cook their pizzas, and had to take the roof off the building to get it in the place. These guys are serious.
Brazos Tacos is also to the south of the Downtown, but within easy walking distance of the Mall. The eatery original appeared as a temporary pop-up shop within another restaurant, but proved so wildly popular that it is now permanent. It also gets bonus points - not that it really needs any - for being kid friendly.
Ace Biscuit & Barbecue is not quite downtown, but it's worth finding. Their sandwiches are all around dynamite, and they have meat by the pound as well if you just want to dispense with the toppings.
It will take some research on your part, but there are several excellent food trucks roaming the streets of Charlottesville that are worth trying to hunt down to sample their cooking. Our personal favorites are SouthFork Food Truck and Spice Sea Gourmet, but we are intrigued by the new Cote-Rotie truck that started serving customers in the last month or so.