You hear the words "gastropub" or "pub house" thrown around often when discussing restaurants and bars. Yet, few places go the distance in actually offering up public space through their bar or restaurant, one that is truly open and accessible to all. Enter Mike Rodi, owner of Rapture in downtown Charlottesville, whose hot spot located on the bustling downtown mall has worked to entertain and satiate since 1998.
Since the beginning, Mike and Rapture have been supporters of the craft cocktail movement, working to offer not only locally sourced items on the dinner menu, but behind the bar as well. We headed up to Charlottesville to chat with Mike on how he created such an enticing venue and managed to support local brewers and distillers so early in the movement.
Tell us about yourself…
I’m the owner of Rapture in Charlottesville, which means I get to do a little bit of everything, though not so much actual bartending these days. I do get to create cocktails, and I consider that one of the perks of the job. After 18 years, it’s one of the things that actually keeps being a bar owner fresh and fun.
How long have you been bartending?
Oh-oh. Time to reveal my age! I got behind my first bar in 1991. I was waiting tables at a restaurant in New York, paying for college, and had to work as my own service bartender. At the time, I knew next to nothing about cocktails, and personally liked my liquor straight. Of course, in those days the state of cocktails was pretty abysmal.
What do you do when you’re not bartending? Any hobbies/side jobs/secret identities?
I spent years playing guitar in a band, recording, touring, and songwriting. I geek out over electronics and circuitry. I have an amazing family, so I when I’m not at the restaurant, I spend a lot of time doing stuff with the kids. I still DJ on occasion.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
Even though I own Rapture, a pool hall, I’m actually a terrible pool player.
What’s your favorite thing to drink? Favorite classic cocktail? Favorite thing to drink when no one’s looking?
My go-to's are Jameson, neat; Martinis (these days Strange Monkey Gin, a healthy drop of vermouth, lemon peel); and Sixpoint Brewery’s Sweet Action, preferably in a can. Now that we're entering some cooler weather, I love a Sazerac. My favorite rye for Sazerac duty is Copper Fox. When no one’s looking, I drink water.
Tell us about your bar…
Rapture is a pool hall, a music venue, and dancing spot… so it’s pretty casual, with a strongly old Southern city feel - think French Quarter. It has antique mirrors, wrought iron gate, and the front surface of the bar and kitchen line are repurposed church doors. It’s a bit gritty for some folks, but for us it has real soul.
The vibe at Rapture changes over the course of the week and over the course of the night. Wednesday nights, for example, are very craft-beer driven; the bands that we tend to book for our weekly showcase bring out the IPA drinkers. Saturday evenings are dominated by specialty cocktails, until late night, when the drinks get simpler, sweeter, and cheaper… and way more of them go out. At that point, it’s not really about the drinks anymore. Oh well.
What’s the neighborhood like?
It’s the Downtown pedestrian mall…when it’s hopping, it would give Bourbon Street a run for it’s money. Street vendors and performers, all ages, colors, and creeds, and a restaurant/bar every few feet! I’d say the Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is one of the coolest things about the city.
What makes your bar unique?
We’re kind of the elders of the local scene. We opened in 1998. We had craft beers on tap even back then, when almost no one in the area did. We embraced craft cocktails and local distilleries before the cool kids were doing it, ha ha. But really, we’re kind of schizophrenic: we have great food, locally and sustainably sourced but unpretentious; we have a bustling late night scene but we have our quiet sensitive side, too!
What’s your favorite part about working there?
Our Chef, Chris Humphrey, is an ongoing joy to work with. His food is consistently delicious, and he constantly raises the bar for everyone around him.
What’s a good night look like for you? What are people ordering?
Whatever makes them happy. I guess it’s great when other people love what you love, but really, if they’re having a good time and pleasing their taste buds, then we’re doing what we’re here to do.
What’s your favorite menu item / cocktail pairing?
We have a gin cocktail — Strange Monkey gin, muddled basil, limoncello — that goes down easy with a plate of fried green tomatoes with topped with Chesapeake blue crab succotash. Our menu changes seasonally, as do several cocktails, but that’s been a good one this summer.
Can you share a Belle Isle creation with us?
It’s called The Sun & The Moon: the sun because of the tomatoes and grapefruit, which obviously are hot weather fruits, and bright and acidic ones, which make them especially delicious when the sun is shining… and, well, the the Moon because, you know, shine…
This cocktail has more culinary than libational inspiration; I’ve worked for many years with Chef Chris Humphrey, and I sometimes I find his ways of thinking rubbing off on me. Every year at the height of tomato season we do a Tomato Dinner. One year, he made a Scallop Crudo with tomatoes and grapefruit, and the flavors were brilliant together. Another year he did a dessert with a tomato tart and a pink peppercorn ice cream. Again, the flavor pairings definitely stayed with me as I developed this cocktail.
By the way, this cocktail, though it’s really easy to make once everything done, really gave me a hard time! I had a hard time getting the right balance between the smoke, the tomatoes, and the grapefruit. It was easy for the grapefruit to overwhelm the other flavors; increasing the shrub in the mix, however, made for a cocktail that was too sweet for what I wanted. In the end, I needed both better tomatoes from later in the season than were available when I started making it, less sugar in the shrub, and I needed to really intensify the flavors in the shrub. I ended up cold smoking white wine vinegar ice cubes, hot smoking the tomatoes, combining with about 1/4 cup of pink peppercorns and a tablespoon of black for good measure. Then I add more smoke to the mason jar before sealing it for 4 days. I don’t strain it after that—I add sugar (about a cup per ice cube tray, or 1.5 cup of vinegar), bring it to a boil, let it cool all the way down. Then, finally, I strain it.
- 1 1/2 oz. Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit Moonshine
- 1 3/4 oz. Smoked Tomato & Pink Peppercorn Shrub
- 1/4 oz. Lillet Blanc
Chill a coupe or martini glass. Fill shaker with ice, add all ingredients, shake or stir, then strain into glass. Garnish with a candied/dehydrated grapefruit slice, or rim glass with tomato powder.
Recipe by Mike Rodi
Photos by Ost Haus