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Edible Excursions: A Love Letter to Charlottesville

By March 28, 2024No Comments
 Remembering Wilson Richey
WORDS | Simon Davidson    PHOTOS | Courtesy of Restaurants

Months after a car accident took the life of Charlottesville’s most prolific restaurateur, its food community still mourns the loss of Wilson Richey. But given Richey’s love of life and Charlottesville, people wallowing in despair is not what he would have wanted. Rather, he would have hoped for the community he loved to keep finding joy in the places he leaves behind. That’s why he built them.

Richey created experiences he wanted to enjoy, and then hoped others would enjoy them, too.  The Alley Light is a hushed speakeasy for cocktails, wine and refined plates of food. Its near opposite, The Whiskey Jar is a rowdy come-as-you-are saloon for Southern booze, fare and music. The Bebedero offers mezcal-spiked revelry, Veracruz-style. The Wine Guild is a gathering place for savoring wine with reverence but not pretense. And his new Hogwaller Brewing is a welcoming, no-frills nano-brewery where beer brewed onsite washes down smash burgers Richey took years to perfect.

As varied as his places are, there is one thing they share: purpose. “I like to lift people up, make them happier, create good times,” Richey once explained. From playlists to service to cuisine, Richey believed the many parts of a great restaurant all must have what he called a harmonic correctness. “There is the joy of an elegantly served classic meal that is different than the joy of live music, BBQ, whiskey, friends and being loud, but both are achieved at a restaurant by the means of food, drink and atmosphere.”

The care Richey took in his creations enhanced his appreciation of peers who took similar care. He loved Charlottesville and relished what it had to offer. He often did it all day long.

Enjoying a day in Charlottesville the way Richey did might begin with a mud cup (drip coffee and espresso) from Mudhouse Coffee Roasters, and then a quick stop at Bodo’s Bagels, where he would order bags full of sandwiches – bacon, egg and Swiss on sesame – as gifts to fuel his staff’s day at The Whiskey Jar. For lunch, it would be the patio of Bizou, where French and American comfort food meet. “There is perfection in simplicity and that perfection is delivered every service at Bizou,” Richey once said. His favorite was the restaurant’s iconic meatloaf, smashed potatoes, and greens, paired with a bottle of good Beaujolais selected by his friend, Bizou co-owner Vincent Derquenne.

After lunch he might head to Wineworks Extended, the Charlottesville tasting room for Michael Shaps wines. The only region of the world for which Richey’s affection rivaled Central Virginia is Burgundy. Winemaker Michael Shaps shares affection for those two places, so much so that he makes wine in both. The Mersault that Shaps makes in Burgundy and ships to Virginia suited Richey just right.

For dinner, at Tavola chef-owner Michael Keaveny imagines what Italians would cook if Central Virginia were a region of Italy. Richey had planned to dine at Tavola the day he died, and likely would have enjoyed his favorite pappardelle Bolognese with a bottle of Nebbiolo. Wide ribbons of house-made pasta are folded into a rich ragu of beef and pork with Grana Padano and basil. Or, Richey might have had steak. With his life cut short at 47, Richey was still not done creating experiences, and his biggest unfulfilled dream was a Tuscan steakhouse, an idea that hatched on a trip to Italy with his father. Since he never created that himself, Tavola’s bistecca alla griglia would scratch the itch: grilled ‘la frieda’ hanger steak, with cipollini in agrodolce, mountain gorgonzola, and a rosemary-potato cake.

To finish the day, Richey would be happiest back at his favorite spot: The Whiskey Jar for a night cap, like a bottling of one of the single-barrel whiskeys he selected just for his bar. But he had a sweet tooth, too, which the devout locavore satisfied with locally made treats: a caramel by La Vache Creamery, gelato from Splendora’s, or ice cream from SugarBear. It’s no wonder Richey loved Splendora’s and SugarBear so much. To describe their locally-inspired creations, their founders — PK Ross and Emily Harpster respectively — have each used the same phrase, which might also describe Richey’s legacy itself: “a love letter to Charlottesville.”

This article first appeared in our 2024 Spring Issue, HOME.

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