Risty Vlavianos can’t bring herself to believe it’s really going to happen.
The Cavalier Diner, her second home and second love after her husband Sal, is slated to close on Jan. 30 after more than a decade serving up classic diner fare from pancake-wrapped breakfast links and Greek omelets to gyros and cheeseburgers.
What’s putting her out of business is not the ongoing shortage of restaurant staff, although that’s been a problem. It’s not the loss of income during a forced pandemic closure or socially-distanced tables once it reopened.
“The building has been sold and the new owner doesn’t want a restaurant in here,” she said, sitting at a table in the Emmet Street diner with some patrons who consider themselves friends. “It’s hard to believe. We made it through a recession, a pandemic, a staff shortage and a supply shortage and even a car driving into the building, only to have this happen.”
Vlavianos and Sal have been looking for a new location for the diner, but the piping hot real estate market in Charlottesville and Albemarle County makes finding a spot for a traditional American diner difficult.
“There are a lot of restaurants that have gone out business in the past couple of years, but finding a site that’s suitable for a diner isn’t that easy. You don’t want it too big. You need parking space,” she said.
“You don’t want a high-end establishment, and you want it in a convenient location. And you need the rents to be affordable,” she said. “Rents in this area are so high. It makes it difficult for a local restaurant to survive. There are so many chains coming in now and they’re the only ones who can afford it.”
The Vlavianos family has been cooking up meals for people in Charlottesville for five decades. Her parents, Nick and Margarita, arrived in Charlottesville in 1971 from Connecticut after emigrating from Greece.
They opened the Expresso restaurant on West Main, then Expresso Steak and Lobster House. They also operated the eclectic Emmet Street eatery known as the Italian Villa Pancake House before retiring and leaving the restaurant business to their daughter.
“I learned everything from them. I grew up in the business and was always in the restaurant. When I wasn’t in school, I was in the restaurant. I always loved it,” Risty Vlavianos recalled. “They tried to push us kids away from the restaurant business because it’s hard work, it’s seven days a week and it’s 16 hours a day, but I loved it.”
Vlavianos’ sister followed her parents’ advice. For a short time, so did she. She went to James Madison University and earned a master’s degree in history. She taught in high school for several years before the restaurant business called her home.
After working with her parents at the Italian Villa Pancake House, she left when they did and took over the former Hoo’s Kitchen/Sam’s Kitchen at the corner of Emmet and Earhart, across the road from Bodo’s Bagels.
The restaurant has always been a homey spot, from the comfort food served to easy-going wait staff. Once the diner reopened after the pandemic, social distancing was enforced by stuffed animals sitting in the seats where humans were not allowed, a touch of humor in an otherwise humorless time.
That’s in keeping with Vlavianos’ way of doing business. The Cavalier Diner has been not only a way for her family to make a living, but a way to make friends.
“It’s the people. You meet so many interesting people from so many walks of life and every day is a different day. I met some people from Alaska the other day who were joking about our snow. We meet a lot of people who are in town because of the University of Virginia Medical Center,” she said. “You get to know them. A lot of people will come in on a regular basis and you get to be an extended family and that’s what the restaurant means to me.”
For some regulars, regular visitation means nearly every day.
“Seven days a week,” said Melva Farish, sitting at a table with Vlavianos and customer Ralph Davidson, joking with waitress Melinda Wood as she proved how bottomless her coffee cup, brought in from home and kept behind the diner’s bar, can be.
“My grandkids grew up in here. Every morning I’d pick them up to keep them for the day, load them up in the car and come over,” Farish laughs. “We’ve met so many good people here and we have a great time together.”
Farish said the diner is much like the old television series “Cheers,” but without the bar and with better food.
“It’s just a great hangout place. I have my own coffee cup here and I come in for the food, coffee and company,” she said.
What she’ll do when the diner closes after Jan. 30, Farish isn’t sure.
“I guess I’ll just plan on staying home until Risty finds another place,” she said. “If she does, then I’ll go there.”
For Vlavianos, the harsh reality of the sale and the rental market makes it hard to believe she’ll be able to reopen the restaurant. Still, she hasn’t completely given up.
“It’s something that’s out of my hands, but I would really like to stay here. I love the diner and the people. They’re not just customers, they’re friends. I keep hoping something will turn up, that we’ll find another place. This is what I’ve always wanted to do and I’d hope to keep working here until I retired,” she said.
“If we close, it will be the first time in 51 years there hasn’t been a restaurant run by the Vlavianos family,” she said. “There’s a part of me that can’t believe we’re really going to close.”