The Great Chicken Expedition

3 Restaurants, 2 friends, 1 goal: find the best fried chicken in Charlottesville.

In a day and age where food is grammed more often than it is actually eaten, where we supposedly subsist off latte foam art and goopy green cashew kale shakes from the Corner, we must ask ourselves–what does an overworked college student have to do to get a decent fried chicken around here?  Is there any room for taste in this sea of avocado toast and acai bowls? Our fearless hosts and fried chicken aficionados, Fiona Seoh and Bradley Sheen, traversed the four corners of Charlottesville to unearth the answer, talking to local restaurant owners along the way. They broke down their criteria for fried chicken into 3 seemingly incompatible categories–crispiness, juiciness and flavor–the title of Top Fried Chicken in Charlottesville only being awarded to one that mastered the trifecta in perfect harmony. 

Brown’s:

A humble convenience store/gas station, Brown’s boasts a 34 year old tradition of serving chicken.  On June 4th, 1984, Mike Brown and his wife opened Brown’s doors in their hometown of Esmont, Virginia. Mike’s father used their family recipe, serving all his chicken fresh from the stove.  Brown’s moved to commercial fryers as their popularity grew, but Mike Brown’s priority is maintaining consistency. Due to demands increasing upwards of 150-200 pieces, Mike and his wife now entrust much of the frying to their employees.  They nevertheless make a concerted effort not to “cut corners” or “buy cheap oil”. The quality is unmistakable at first crunch, not to mention the southern hospitality of a complimentary side dish of mac and cheese.

  • Crispiness: 3
  • Juiciness: 5
  • Flavor: 3
  • Overall: 3.7

Mel’s Cafe:

The next stop on our journey was Mel’s Cafe, marked by its iconic neon orange sign overlooking the Charlottesville train station, a familiar omen to weary Amtrak traveler and local alike.  Its 4.5 star rating Yelp review isn’t its only claim to fame. Mel’s has not only served as the backdrop to a feature-length film, but also as the subject of a 25-minute PBS documentary shot by Tracy Allen of Charlottesville Inside-Out.  All the hype–coupled with construction of the brand-spanking-new Main Street apartment complex, The Standard– has greatly diversified Mel’s patrons. UVA students to Richmond tourists are lining up to see if the food lives up to its name. Despite all the hype, Mel’s founder, Melvin Walker can still be found behind the counter, cooking the chicken himself, never too overwhelmed for a quick chat. Mel’s chicken and vegetables are all home-cooked, so there’s a longer wait– and an explosion of full-bodied flavor that we didn’t get anywhere else. The fact that it is fried only after being ordered, not reheated, creates the symphony of dryer, popcorn-like crunches with every bite. Floor to ceiling framed pictures of loyal patrons, a hum from the sizzling grill and subdued sportscasting from the TV come together: it’s Southern family we never had.

  • Crispiness: 4
  • Juiciness: 4
  • Flavor: 4
  • Overall: 4

Wayside Chicken:

By this point, our hosts were one wing short of a chicken-induced coma, but they trudged on bravely to their final target, Wayside Chicken on Jefferson Park Avenue.  With less cashier small-talk and more deliberation over ordering, Wayside favored efficiency over ambience. The quaint tiny farm-like structure boasts over 22 years of serving chicken to local residents.  While it has experienced the most change in ownership amongst our venues, exchanging hands 4 times, Wayside has been managed by locally renowned figures in the restaurant business. Dale Quillon and his son, Phillip, managed Wayside for 20 years, after having successfully owned and operated his sister, Fay Wingfields’ “Dales Ole Va Fried Chicken on High Street” prior and Caravan Restaurant on 29 North for years. Wayside’s management was kept within a familial lineage with Dale passing on its management to his former employee (and current owner), Calvin Cummings.  Caravan Restaurant on 29 North was in fact, Calvin Cummings’s, first ever part-time job. Wayside’s crispiness had a much more bready, rather than toast-like, texture to it– similar to Brown’s. It took the prize in glistening juiciness, requiring several napkins after the first bite.

  • Crispiness: 5
  • Juiciness: 3
  • Flavor: 3
  • Overall: 3.7

 

Ultimately, Mel’s Cafe won us over as The Best Fried Chicken in Charlottesville. It preserves a satisfying outer crunch with a succulent interior and the most detectably rich, yet-not-overly-salty flavor that left our taste buds tingling.  If on the run, however, Brown’s and Wayside offer a familiar crunch for half the wait. Whether it is a best-kept-secret, sit-down homestyle, or in-and-out experience you seek, Charlottesville’s got you covered. And by that we mean glistening with grease, smothered in seasoning, and encased in a sizzling crust.

 

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