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Can You Tell Me How to Get to 434th St?

By Darnell Lamont Walker I Photos by Tristan Williams

Nestled within the blooming embrace of the dogwood and Eastern redbud trees, the azaleas and Virginia bluebells, emerges a culinary sanctuary that beckons with the allure of the world’s gastronomic greats. It took years to get over my surprise that Charlottesville, Virginia should be mentioned with the giants. I’ve gone from Barcelona to Tokyo to Paris to Florence to Lima, and Copenhagen, logging countless miles in pursuit of exceptional dining experiences, and Charlottesville fits in comfortably. Once ranked as high as #14 for most restaurants per capita, this picturesque city, the city I ran barefoot through from Westhaven to Dice Street, to Ridge Street to Orangedale, has earned its place as a haven for foodies, drawing flavor seekers from all over to indulge in its diverse culinary offerings. At the heart, or at least floating somewhere near the gut, of this culinary renaissance stands 434th Street restaurant, a testament to the city’s growing gastronomic prowess and a destination for anyone with an appetite for adventure.

Vinegar Hill’s Editor-in-chief Sonia Montalvo doesn’t know I’ve been a lover of good food since watching my grandmother, Irene Jones, pour love from every pot onto my plate as a kid, or that from age 10 to 17, everyone thought I’d be a pastry chef because of my love of baking, but somehow she knew to call me when food and writing were on the table. I quickly accepted the offer, booked a flight, and picked 434th Street from the well-curated list of Black-owned restaurants to eat. And because food is best enjoyed while laughing with friends, I called Kim and Welford to join me.

We made our way to the historic Dairy Market where 434th Street holds court amidst a bustling array of vendors and culinary artisans, found free parking, and took in the sights and sounds created by the kids, the cornholers, and pets filling the many spaces. The air was equally alive with the delicious aroma of spices and sweets, the joyful chatter of diners savoring their meals, and the infectious rhythm of music drifting from the down windows of cars driving down Preston Avenue. We entered.

Through the front door, straight ahead, turn left, and there, we found 434th Street waiting for us, and because I hadn’t eaten all day in preparation for this meal, I ran over with an excitement I’ve only seen in ants discovering a Now and Later candy on a hot sidewalk. Chef Johnathan Wright, Jr. was waiting with a smile, ready to cure my hunger.

We scoured the menu like adventurers mapping out a course toward treasure, up and down, left and right. From braised oxtails to coconut curry chicken and the tender curried goat, Chef Jonathan’s Island-inspired creations promised to transport us to Islands I’ve frequented and missed dearly. And with sides like golden fried plantains, fried cabbage, and macaroni and cheese, which we learned recently from Netflix’s High on the Hog, was perfected just up the road on Jefferson’s plantation by James Hemings, Sally’s brother, we prepared our taste buds for the journey.

Pictured left to right: 434th Street Owner and Chef Jonathan Wright, Darnell Lamont Walker

As we deliberated over our choices, I couldn’t help but reflect on the burgeoning food scene that has made Charlottesville a mecca for culinary enthusiasts like me. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up and Shoney’s, Red Lobster, and Golden Corral were that places for all celebrations, toasts, and meals we’d brag about to friends and family the day after. I remember my mom winning a gift certificate to Aberdeen Barn and everyone’s excitement and jealousy. But now, with its eclectic mix of restaurants, food trucks, and artisanal markets, Charlottesville offers something to satisfy every palate, from authentic soul food to international cuisine inspired by flavors from around the globe. And at 434th Street, Chef Jonathan Wright Jr. has carved out a niche for himself, drawing on his own experiences as an explorer to bring the flavors of the Caribbean to the city voted amongst the best foodie destinations, best places to live, most beautiful cities, and most intelligent cities. That last one, I like to think, is partly thanks to me. I kid, I kid. A little.

With our orders placed, we found a good spot in the sun to let our anticipation build and we took a moment to raise our glasses in a toast to friendship and the joy of shared experiences. For me and those who I invite to share plates, dining out has always been about more than just the food – It’s about the memories made, the laughter shared, and the connections forged over a shared meal. And as we waited for our dishes to arrive, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to share this culinary adventure with two dear friends by my side.

And then the food came! The passion and creativity behind each dish were undeniable. From the refreshing strawberry blueberry Islandade to the indulgent seafood platters and the inventive Caribbean-inspired creations, Chef Jonathan’s dedication to his craft shone through in every detail.

As we savored the final bites of my Caribbean shrimp and grits and reluctantly bid farewell to 434th Street, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude for the vibrant food scene that has made Charlottesville such a special place for foodies like me. In a city teeming with dining options, 434th Street stands out for the sense of community and camaraderie that permeates its walls. So whether you’re a seasoned epicurean or a curious culinary explorer, make your way to Dairy Market and to 434th Street and let Chef Jonathan take you on a journey of flavor and innovation.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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