By Sharon Donovan
In case of emergency, crème brûlée can be found somewhere everyday in Charlottesville. Whether celebrating a good day or compensating for a bad one, crème brûlée instantly delivers a seduction that honors the moment.
Thomas Jefferson knew this, and served crème brûlée at both The White House and Monticello. Certainly Charlottesville’s community of chefs also know this, which explains why this delicacy is so prolific here.
I’ve enjoyed crème brûlée in Charlottesville since childhood and developed a maternal fondness for the dish. Over time, I discovered this classic doesn’t have to be only for dessert anymore. On any given day, I don’t know if I’ll be in the mood for Champagne, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, or Meursault. And, for me, the same goes for crème brûlée.
So whether it’s after work or after lunch, or even just late afternoon at the bar, have a crème brûlée… and share it with a friend! It’s not just for dessert anymore! And we have lots of choices. Here’s our guide to Charlottesville’s finest crème brûlées.
On the Downtown Mall
Bizou – A personal favorite eatery, whether for lunch, brunch, or dinner at the bar inside or out on the sun-splashed patio, Bizou is the only one who makes an Earl Grey crème brûlée! Usually you don’t infuse the cream, but with this one the tea changes the color of the cream which creates a distinctive texture and flavor.
C&O – This iconic Charlottesville restaurant is one of my favorite settings. The bar room with its wood paneling is rustic in ski-lodge fashion. You can literally travel the world and still come back here for the atmosphere…and the food, including their very classic crème brûlée served garnished with raspberries. Enjoy it with a glass of Champagne!
Crush Pad – Unexpected and, Wow!, their crème brûlée! As delightful at the bar as at a table, the top will crack like a Virginia pond in late December. And if the stars are aligned, proprietor Vincent Derquenne might tender you a tiny glass of orange liqueur to sweeten your swoon.
Fleurie – Petit Pois’ big brother and, in my opinion, the Grande Dame of Downtown, Fleurie can make it hard to believe we are in Charlottesville, and the wine list is so amazing. Thank goodness it’s prix fix or you may skip dessert. Don’t do that! Fleurie owner Brian Hellenberg is very proud of his crème brûlée! Certainly the top layer has an eggshell divinity, while the custard delivers a vanilla revery.
Cafe Frank – This crème brûlée experience here is the most French of all. Their specialty is a foie gras brûlée, and it hits on all cylinders of texture, flavor, hot, cold, crispy and creamy. Here Chef Jose de Brito pulls a rabbit, or in this case a goose, out of his hat!
Zocalo – A longtime classic tucked away behind the fountain on the Mall, Zocalo’s fun, whimsical, and festive atmosphere is a “must-have” Charlottesville experience. I love sitting at the bar and savoring their lemon crème brûlée with ginger and blueberry.
On West Main
Tavern & Grocery – A great place for brunch and music, but they only serve crème brûlée after dinner. No matter. In this one-of-a-kind location, everything else is more important. Besides the rustic hardwood floors and exposed brick along the staircase, their bars are terrific with a deep selection of bourbons. When you finally order your crème brûlée, have it with a Claude Thibaut Rose or some white bubbly by the glass!
Orzo – While it’s open every evening, you might not always find crème brûlée on the menu. When it is, however, they make a fois gras brûlée similar to Bizou’s. Get it if you can!
Aberdeen Barn – A classic spot in every way, and I've been going since I was 10. Get the big prime rib and save room for the crème brûlée which may arrive with a strawberry garnish.
The Ivy Inn – I have to use my “inside voice” when I rave about the food here. No bar to sit at, but for this I forgive them. I would order nothing but appetizers in order to save room for the crème brûlée.
2 Brothers Southwestern Grill – Normally we wouldn’t couple Ruckersville with crème brûlée, but I recommend you discover the delicacy as created by the owners, two brothers, who once worked at the extinct Rhett’s River Grill. Next door to Food Lion, this Mexican grill with split booths and a signature cheesesteak on Texas toast has a super good crème brûlée with its coldest cream at the bottom! At only $4.95, it’s perfect with an ice tea!
Sharon Donovan is a Charlottesville native who loves selling real estate for McLean Faulconer by day. By night, she enjoys the delicious dishes of our finest chefs, and especially their crème brûlées.