Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Shannon Ayres
Thirty years ago, Manuel Alvarez didn’t know how profoundly Middleburg would change his life. When a friend in El Salvador told him a job would be waiting for him if he could find his way to Mosby’s Tavern, Alvarez could not anticipate that in Middleburg he would gain a life partner, acquire a culinary education, attain a thorough familiarity with the works of Dr. Seuss, score a 3.5 rating as a mixed doubles tennis player, and become a fiercely proud American citizen.
He got his first indication of how special Hunt Country was while on the way to the beloved West Marshall Street hangout famous for its local crowd and half-price burgers. “I saw the blue mountains. They were so beautiful.” He would later name some of the dishes he created at the Middleburg Tennis Club after that singular vision.
Culinary inventions would have to wait. When he arrived at Mosby’s, he was pointed toward the dishwashing sink. “I learned everything at Mosby’s Tavern from the bottom up,” he recalls. “The first thing I learned was that I didn’t like washing dishes.”
But he stayed with the culinary profession’s traditional entry-level job, working his way up to line cook, where he was taught to make the Tavern’s famous burgers. “A burger starts with how you grind the beef,” he says. “Then you watch it closely on the grill to make sure it is cooked exactly right, the way the customer wants it. It ends with all the things you put on it. The mustard, the pickles, the relish, the onions. They have to be the very best and exactly right because everybody has the way they like it. You have to find that out, remember it, and do it exactly the way they like it every time. It is simple but it has to be perfect to make the people happy. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, you make the people happy.”
At Mosby’s Tavern he also met Jennifer “Jay” Wood, who was a server at the time. They’ve been together ever since. “I liked to chatter,” she remembers. “And he was a good listener.”
Alvarez and Wood settled in Leesburg, where they still live. Alvarez would go on to work at the Red Fox Inn, but it was during his 15 years at the Middleburg Tennis Club that “I fell in love with the people,” he says. “There are so many good, good people here and they have been so nice to me.”
He had never played tennis when he came into the Club’s kitchen. “And then one day someone didn’t have enough players for a game. He says to me, ‘You can do it, it’s easy.’”
Manuel picked up a racquet, got his first taste of mixed doubles, and was soon volleying acceptably enough to be in demand as a fill-in player. “He has an incredible talent with anything requiring tools or dexterity,” Wood explains. “He’s a natural at tennis and a lot of other sports. On a trip to Kings Dominion, he went to the ball-toss game and won the stuffed toy dog on the second shot.” Daughter Annabell still has the dog.
He began to experiment with different ingredients and make custom dishes for members. One was a special steak salad. He decided to name it after the blue mountains he saw when he first arrived in Middleburg, and it exists today on his menu.
He studied English on his afternoon break by reading Dr. Seuss books. Upon becoming a United States citizen, the Club threw him a party.
“It was a small party but very nice,” Wood recalls. “It meant so much to him.”
Alvarez thought he might stay at the tennis club forever, but the dream of having his own restaurant would not go away. When he heard a former pizzeria in Marshall was available, he and Wood signed a five-year lease, naming the restaurant after the blue mountains that have been so inspirational. In addition to running the dining room in the evenings, Wood manages the business side, while Alvarez works in the kitchen.
Now in his third month as co-owner, with Wood, Alvarez knows his Blue Mountain Grill can deliver on his promise of making customers happy. The word has gone out to former and current members of the Middleburg Tennis Club who remember him in the club’s kitchen, as well as on the tennis court. They’ve followed him to the former pizzeria on West Main Street, where they linger over his salads, steaks, burgers, and clam chowder.
“It’s low-key and friendly. We always see someone we know,” says Middleburg Tennis Club member Nicky Perry, who has become a Blue Mountain Grill regular. She recommends the filet mignon, chicken piccata, California crab salad, and the hamburgers, “which are the best and cooked as ordered.”
Chef Alvarez’s current problem is finding time to relax and make himself happy. With the exception of one day last month, he can be found at his restaurant seven days a week, supervising nine employees, cooking the food, and meeting the many challenges a chef and owner can face. “It’s so stressful!” he sighs. “All my life I thought it would be easier when I had my own place. Now … there is so much to worry about.”
Elizabeth Blue, owner of the beauty salon across West Main Street, thinks he shouldn’t worry, and that a relaxed casual eatery is exactly what Marshall’s Main Street needs. “It’s great food at a great price,” she says. “I’ve picked up lunch on multiple occasions from Blue Mountain Grill for myself and the girls at the shop. I had the coconut shrimp and the turkey club on our first visit, and man, was it delicious. The girls got the clam chowder, chili, and a cheeseburger. All got raving reviews, especially the clam chowder.”
Hearing that, Chef Alvarez is momentarily pleased. His eyes go back to his kitchen. “There is so much to do.”
The restaurant currently serves only wine and beer, though Alvarez envisions a full service bar with specialty cocktails sometime next year. Wood wants to tweak the interior. “It needs a little love.”
What appeals to them both is the town of Marshall and its surrounding community. “We want to get to know our neighbors,” Wood says. “I graduated from Fauquier High School. But we’ve been working so hard together that we’re hoping we can get some time, catch our breath, and get to know the people around us.”
Chef Alvarez puts it simply. “I made people happy when I didn’t have my own place. Now I want to make more people happy with my place.”
And maybe take a day off. ML
Published in the December 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.