Some of our greatest lessons were learned in college. Certainly through classes and textbooks but also through the overall college experience: sharing a dorm room with a person you’ve never met before, making lifelong friends and memories, experiencing moments and situations that shape you into the person you are. Sometimes we imagine returning to our glory days of college when nights lasted longer, responsibilities were fewer, and life was overall less complicated. Now there’s a hotel that allows you to do just that.
Located on Charlottesville’s Main Street right across from the University of Virginia sits the hip and eclectic Graduate Charlottesville. This boutique hotel largely caters to alumni, inviting them to come back, recreate those memories, rekindle their adoration for the university and surrounding city and feel connected to both yesterday and today.
I’m visiting in April when classes are coming to an end and students are cramming for exams. Not having been a UVA graduate, I’m not here to recreate memories but to create some new ones. Plus, I’m traveling with my college sweetheart (aka my husband), so we’ve got our own adoration to rekindle.
The hotel opened in June 2015 and was transformed from what used to be a Red Roof Inn. Scoping the scene today though, Graduate has an atmosphere all its own.
Stepping into the lobby, guests are greeted with an impressive front desk created from card catalogues that are even cooler than meets the eye. One drawer opens up to reveal doggie treats at the perfect level for furry friends to grab and go. Another drawer contains an assortment of candies for young guests. On top of the desk sits a glass display containing a tiny town and model train set that operates with the push of a button.
We receive our room keys, which are modeled after student IDs of famous UVA alums, including Tina Fey. This is just one of the many ways in which Graduate cleverly plays homage to the university and Charlottesville.
When determining what sorts of décor to include in a Graduate hotel, the owners visit that area’s local antique stores to view the city from a local lens. “It’s all about storytelling,” says Ben Weprin, founder and CEO of Graduate Hotels. “Peeling back layers of the community and telling stories about what makes it really special.”
Upon entering our room, the first thing we notice hanging on a wall above the bed is a large wahoo, a type of fish that’s known for being able to drink its own weight in fluid. It’s also a nickname for the Cavaliers.
Decorations on the wall (which look as if they’ve been salvaged from thrift stores but I later learn are reproductions) have hidden meanings as well. Pictures of horses coordinate with the hotel’s affiliation with The Foxfield Races. A picture of a raven symbolizes Edgar Allen Poe, who was also a student at UVA. A picture with squiggly lines goes along with a legend that Dr. Seuss tried to enroll admissions to UVA and was denied, and that the fictional town of Whoville was modeled after Charlottesville. It’s quite possible that this story is just an urban legend but a fascinating one at that.
Cabinets beneath the TV are adorned with silhouettes of famous people who have a connection to Charlottesville. Among them are Tina Fey and Jessica Lange, both of whom attended UVA; Rob Lowe, who was born in Charlottesville; and Thomas Jefferson.
The room itself is reminiscent of a vintage dorm room: flannel-patterned carpet, a faux rotary phone, and a work station with a hotel directory designed to look like a composition book are elements that inspire notions of pulling an all-nighter to study for the big test—or smuggling booze into your dorm room.
Thankfully at Graduate, there’s no booze smuggling required. Guests can imbibe at one of two on-site restaurants: Sheepdog Café, which features rotating drinks: a rosé of the day, beer of the moment and signature cocktail on tap; or Heirloom Rooftop + Bar, offering homegrown eats and craft cocktails.
Stepping into Heirloom is both nostalgic and refreshing. The restaurant’s charm irresistibly blends hints of rustic farm life with botanical decor and massive windows that allow splashes of sunlight. We cozy up to the bar beneath light fixtures crafted from tin buckets to order some creative cocktails: for me, a Jefferson’s Garden—Strange Monkey gin and strawberry lavender shrub—for him, a Fresh Heir Julep—Bowman Brothers bourbon, blood orange and mint.
Afterward, we head out on the rooftop for a splendid supper accompanied by the best view in town. I, for one, could make a whole meal off small plates, so we compromise with just three: roast shrimp stuffed with fresh horseradish and served with whiskey apple barbecue sauce (essentially creating its own cocktail sauce); grilled chicken wings smothered in heirloom hot sauce, accompanied by jalapeno jelly; and Chesapeake crab cakes with fresh herb remoulade (I can say without hesitation that they’re just as flavorful and delicate as what we’re lucky to have here on the coast). For our main course, I land on the pan-seared brook trout with brown butter lemon sauce, while he goes for the roast duck breast with clover honey glaze and apple chutney. By the end of the second course, dessert seems downright impossible, but when I return, I’ve got my heart set on the Kentucky butter cake with preserved berries and oat streusel.
Although the adult in us is ready to turn in for the evening, the collegiate atmosphere invokes our younger selves to stay up just a little longer. We wander to the hotel’s second floor game room to find Ping Pong tables and Foosball, but what we’re especially excited for is a rousing round of Shuffleboard. Well, maybe we’re not quite as young as we thought.
Learn more at GraduateHotels.com/Charlottesville/Hotel.
More To Learn
Graduate Hotel is located in The Corner, a seven-block stretch comprised of restaurants, bars and shops on University Avenue in Charlottesville. Here are some nearby spots to check out within walking distance of the hotel:
This delightful artisan market has all the specialty food and drinks you could want and then some. Start at the extensive cheese case (where else?), and take your time skimming and sampling a bit of what Feast! has to offer.
This is where Hardywood has a little fun. Featuring a premier stainless brewhouse dedicated to experimentation, development and collaboration, their Pilot Brewery and Taproom is the perfect opportunity to taste some innovative imbibes, like the Passionfruit Mosaic Berliner Weisse or the Oyster Stout brewed with gems from the Rappahannock River.
Public FIsh & Oyster is a cozy spot featuring fresh seafood, raw bar, craft beer and cocktails. I’m still giddy over their tuna crudo: raw tuna with fresh watermelon, crispy leeks, pickled jalapenos and soy-ginger glaze sprinkled with fresh cilantro. If it’s on the menu, it’s imperative that you order it.