Press "Enter" to skip to content

Caribbean eatery 434th Street opens in Charlottesville Dairy Market food hall

Nothing says “soft launch” like a nonstop stream of customers for six hours and selling out of 40 pounds of oxtail.

Charlottesville’s newest Caribbean restaurant, 434th Street, opened Sunday in the Dairy Market, replacing Filipino eatery Manila Street in the busy food hall on Grady Avenue northwest of downtown Charlottesville.

Founder and chef Jonathan Wright Jr. said he knows there’s a demand for Caribbean flavors in the city, given his success as a caterer and the business at 434th Street Catering. Demand is so high, Wright said, that he knows many customers are driving out of their way to larger cities just to get a taste.

“I’m born and raised here, so I know for a fact a lot of people have to either drive to Richmond or NoVa to get Caribbean food,” Wright told The Daily Progress. “So it’s a win-win situation. I know how to cook it, and we need it.”

Only one other Caribbean establishment exists in the city: Pearl Island Café in the Jefferson School City Center.

After operating as caterer and City Market vendor for three years, Wright said he was approached in July about taking over Manila Street’s lease. Fernando Dizon, co-owner of Manila Street, recently acquired a second food truck and did not think it feasible to manage both a stall in the Dairy Market and a fleet of food trucks; he decided to focus on the food trucks, Wright said.

Stony Point Development Group, the Dairy Market’s Charlottesville-based owner, was already interested in bring 434th Street into the fold, but after Wright cooked up some dishes for a few of the company’s executives, they were sold, Wright said.

“They thought it was a good fit for the diverse cuisine and cultures in here,” he said.

Wright signed his lease the last day of November and spent the next 35 days painting, cleaning and organizing his new space ahead of his grand opening on Sunday.

“I’m new to this whole thing, but I’ve been told by many owners, ‘Yeah, you did that,’” he said. “I’ll take that. So far, so good.”

To Wright’s point, the Dairy Market’s tenants are a diverse array of cultures and cuisines, including Al Basha’s Mediterranean fare, Basta Pasta’s homemade Italian dishes, Mashu Festival’s Japanese ramens and Chimm St.’s Thai street food. Stony Point, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has made it a mission to bring in local vendors who got their start as food truck operators and caterers since opening in 2021. As of last year, Stony Point was reporting strong numbers, limited vacancy and high foot traffic, at the food hall.

“The Dairy Market welcomed me in, they reached out to me,” Wright said. “They gave me the opportunity when no one else would.”

Wright counts his blessings.

For years, he was a certified automotive technician with a passion for cooking. When he was laid off from Emerson Automotive Services during the pandemic, he saw it as an opportunity to “get back to what I know best.”

He formed 434th Street Catering in October of 2020 and became a regular vendor at Charlottesville’s City Market. The business did well, especially among the University of Virginia crowd, he said. He catered a 175-alumni event for the school’s Chemistry Department, a 220-strong party for UVa Facilities Management and an event for UVa Children’s on top of weddings and other private events.

The transition to a brick-and-mortar stall at Dairy Market has been an adjustment.

434th Street Catering typically had a team of three providing back-up for Wright 10 to 12 hours ahead of events.

He’s hired five employees to help run the Dairy Market stall, but now he is the only one handling the kitchen side of the operations.

“It’s my first time having actual employees in a tight setting,” Wright said. “It’s different from the catering, but it works.”

How and where he sources ingredients has also had to change.

“Now, I cook things fresh, so I’m getting here six or seven in the morning to get things ready,” he said. “It’s different because of the behind-the-scenes office work. For my catering, I can usually got to Sam’s or somewhere to get what I need. It’s different ordering food and inventory from US Foods or other companies.”

Cooking and, more importantly, savoring good food have always been important to Wright, who said he watched attentively as his grandmothers and aunts prepared dishes over the holidays. Wright’s maternal grandmother, Evelyn Mason, was head chef at Martha Jefferson House, a senior living facility in the city’s Venable neighborhood; she died when was 3 years old.

While cooking is in his blood, Wright’s wanderlust is what introduced him to Caribbean cuisine in particular.

“I’m a traveler,” said Wright. “I’ve traveled to a lot of Caribbean countries and, of course, I ate the food there and I just fell in love with it.”

The seafood and curry menu items at 434th Street were influenced by Wright’s time spent in the Cayman Islands. The fried seafood platter is a favorite of his 12 year-old son. The “famous” coconut curry is a product of Wright’s own creativity.

“I don’t call everything famous, other people did that for me,” joked Wright.

The method used to prepare the popular jerk chicken Wright learned from a woman he met in Jamaica. Wright said he can still remember the scent of the food drifting from her smoker.

“I can still smell and taste that aroma, but the funny thing is, I can taste and smell it in my food too,” said Wright. “I have a lot of Caribbean people come in and say, ‘You’re the closest thing we have to home.’”

Wright is known in the Charlottesville community for more than his unique Caribbean flavors. He has also made a name for himself through his philanthropic work. On Thanksgiving, he partnered with Come As You Are Cville, a nonprofit group dedicated to serving the area’s homeless population, to hand out more than 175 meals on the Downtown Mall.

The move into the Dairy Market has kept him occupied over the past few months, but Wright said he is looking forward to collaborating with more community partners in 2024.

Wright also noted he recently acquired an LLC in Texas, where he plans to open another food stall, though there is nothing official to announce just yet, he said. As of right now, he has no further plans for expansion in Charlottesville, but the turnout on Sunday made it obvious to Wright that he has tapped into a market of enthusiastic, hungry foodies.

“We’re moving forward,” he said. “It’s to the point now where there’s no return, because the demand is so high. If the demand is here, we’re doing a second location. From what I saw yesterday, I was thinking, ‘This won’t be big enough.’ I might need my own solidified spot. I don’t see this going anywhere for generations.”

434th Street at Dairy Market is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays, and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.


Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *