A community focus comes first.

When restaurateurs Warren Thompson and Ron Jordan saw an opportunity to open a new restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, they knew it had to be something special. An alum of the University of Virginia, Thompson wanted to pay homage to the late Walter Ridley who was the university’s first Black graduate and the first African-American to receive a doctorate degree from an historically white, southern university.

So he and Jordan decided that in addition to serving high-caliber seafood, The Ridley would also be a community-driven establishment that encouraged people from all walks of life to come together. The restaurant would further champion diversity and inclusion by donating a portion of its proceeds to The Ridley Scholarship Fund.

Originally slated to open in January, The Ridley is now on track for a spring debut, with plans to host special appreciation events for healthcare workers.

Nobis Interior Rendering

Warren Thompson

FSR talked with Thompson and Jordan about how they are filling a niche in Charlottesville, both in terms of the menu and community representation.

How did the idea for The Ridley first come about?

Warren Thompson: There’s a hotel called The Draftsman in honor of Thomas Jefferson who was himself a draftsman. Its restaurant, Renewal Tavern, had been in business for two or three years and wasn’t doing very well. So I approached the owners of the hotel about taking it over and doing something much better. We came up with this notion of creating a restaurant that was unique to Charlottesville and would tie in well with the University of Virginia. And I couldn’t think of any better way to do that than to create a restaurant named for Dr. Walter Ridley. Nothing like this had been done before.

How does this origin story translate to the dining experience?

WT: Charlottesville is very much a land of the haves and the have-nots. So I said, let’s create a restaurant that becomes a symbol of pride to both. It’s a place where we will encourage gatherings of people who know each other and people who don’t know each other. A place where African-American students can go with pride. When Black alumni come back, they can meet up at The Ridley and talk about their days at the university. White students who are sensitive to the importance of diversity and inclusion can come there and connect with likeminded people.

Thompson Growth Group Nobis Rendering Poolside

Ron Jordan

Ron Jordan: The pandemic has really accelerated where the restaurant business was already headed. The millennial generation, which is now the largest working demographic, makes buying decisions—especially with food—around experience. The purpose of this restaurant is to provide an upscale Southern yet casual experience. We’re able to bring a little bit of D.C. flair to that. We wanted to make sure that everybody in Charlottesville got an out-of-town experience.

This restaurant is competitive in terms of experiential dining, from the curation of music to the different theme nights to the different menu offerings we brought to the community. We’re really excited for people to see exactly what we’ve been able to create based on what we feel like there is a need for here in Charlottesville.

Do you think The Ridley will inspire other restaurateurs to do something similar?

WT: We are probably less focused or thinking about what other restaurants are going to have to do. I believe that competition drives action. I believe that if we create this restaurant, others are going to look to that and say, “Wow, they’re packed. Why are they packed?” Because they’re encouraging dialogue. They’re encouraging the gathering of people from different backgrounds. Their employees look like the community. Their management team is diverse. It’s just a cool place to go, and I think other restaurants will follow suit.

I’ve given some thought to saying, if this experiment works in Charlottesville, is it something that can be done at other universities throughout the country? Because there are other people who braved trails.

We were making a presentation to a major university in the Midwest last week. That university had a first African-American to graduate, but there’s been no recognition of that individual. Is this something that we could do in that city as well? So if The Ridley is successful, which we’re confident it will be, can it then be the first step to being able to replicate this throughout the country?

Beyond The Ridley’s history and its mission, what sets it apart as a restaurant?

RJ: We’ve talked about all the socially responsible things that set us apart. But I think the thing we haven’t mentioned that is the most obvious elephant in the room is the food—the food and the experience. I think what’s missing in Charlottesville is a place that does seafood extremely well. I think we’re going to be known for a whole lot more, but we definitely want to be that place where people can get the absolute best seafood. Right now, to get a phenomenal Chilean sea bass, grouper, or high-end crab dish, you’ve got to go out of town. Now we’re bringing that opportunity to the heart of the city.

We’re also focusing on the brunch segment. Charlottesville has a great college sports scene, so why not start the day at the restaurant before you tailgate? Come in and enjoy our DJ and our bottomless mimosas and bellinis and really get the day kicked off in a spot that promotes so many great things. But first and foremost, make sure you have a great time.

WT: The fortunate thing is that Ron and I are not new to this business. This isn’t our first rodeo. We probably have, between the two of us, 10 different brands, and we’re pulling some of the best items off those menus.

Ron has a fried lobster tail at Hen Quarter in Dublin, Ohio, that I will almost fly out to Ohio to get. Now I can drive to Charlottesville and get it. We’ve got a restaurant called Makers Union in Reston, Virginia, with a couple items on that menu that we’ll introduce. We’ve got a restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, called Yacht that has some brunch items that people will go out of their way to get. So those are the kinds of things that will be in The Ridley menu.

Feature, Leader Insights, NextGen Casual