Uncle Charlie’s Smokehouse threw in the towel in a dispute over renewing its lease in February, clearing the way for Charlottesville’s Mudhouse coffeehouse to open a new location on Crozet’s most conspicuous corner.
Mudhouse owner John Lawrence said, “We think of [the new store] as being a living room for Crozet. We want to continue the tradition of music at that location and we want to introduce things like story-telling. We’ll renovate it to be a real comfortable space.” Depending on how improvements proceed, Lawrence said he hopes to be open sometime this summer.
“We’re excited to do a coffeehouse. Crozet is so amazing. It has a strong identity and we want to create a space where Crozet can express itself.”
Lawrence described the kitchen as larger than the one in the Mudhouse’s downtown Charlottesville store, which allows for a somewhat expanded menu. “We’ll definitely have kids in mind.” The Mudhouse also operates expresso bars in Tiger Fuel convenience stores at Bel Air, Pantops, Forest Lakes and Mill Creek.
Uncle Charlie’s owner Charlie Mayer was philosophical about the demise of the smokehouse, Crozet’s only bar and a spot famous for hosting local bands.
“I tried!” said Mayer. “We were real close. I thought we were going to make it.”
Mayer’s lease expired in October, he said, but it included two five-year renewals. He wanted to renew. But building owners Chris and Tammy Scot were unwilling.
Mayer had removed a radiator and a toilet and sink, justifiably as far as Mayer was concerned. But the Scots considered those breaches of the lease’s terms and a judge agreed with them. “I ran out of money,” Mayer said. “I don’t have any fight left in me. The last six months have been the hardest of my life.”
Mayer had run a bar in Philadelphia for 18 years, but always wanted to own one in his college town. He chose to open in Crozet when he couldn’t get a spot he liked in Charlottesville. He named it for his gregarious father, now dead, who was called “uncle” by scores of friends and acquaintances.
“My mom said to me, ‘Why do you want to do this to yourself again?’ The hours and all. I said, ‘
I gotta know if the wings are that good.’ And they are.”
Mayer said he wishes the state’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants had been enacted three years ago when he opened. “I wanted a neighborhood restaurant/bar. I think the smoking turned out to be a mistake. Another mistake was the smokers in the kitchen. It sort of got away from the restaurant side and became more of a bar. I just went to a really expensive restaurant school.”
He credited Jarius Otieno, who helped him manage the smokehouse, and Al Hinton, who booked bands, for the bar’s success.
“We tried everybody,” Mayer said of the bands who played. “A lot of bands that played Fridays After Five [in Charlottesville] have played here. We had kids from Western and Lockjaw [a band of local dentists].
Mayer said he is going to live with an aunt in Florida for a few months and then intends to return to Charlottesville and try again in a location nearer to the University. “I have tickets for the lacrosse championship in Boston [in May] and I hope U.Va. is in it.”
Friday, February 27, was the Smokehouse’s last night. The tables and chairs had been moved out. A stack of boxes and odds and ends stood near the front door, the last things that needed to go. A Starr Hill beer banner still hung above the band platform and on the chalkboard someone had written, “Thanks for the memories.” Three guitarists and a mandolin player sat on the edge of the stage and played. Regulars were in a jolly mood. It seemed like an ordinary night except this time they were trying to finish off what was left of the inventory. They hated to see the place close. It was the only nightlife west of Charlottesville.