Ice Cream and Straight A's: Charm School, Richmond, VA

Walk through the mint-green door of Charm School and you're faced with a question that has as many possible answers as a multiple choice question on a standardized test:

which flavor do I want today?

Located in downtown Richmond, VA in the space once used as the Quirk Gallery, Charm School is a sort of ice cream Mecca. The kind of place you happily detour to on your way up or down I-95. Good ice cream is something worth traveling for, and Charm School's is one of the best. Co-owners Alex Zavaleta and Meryl Hillerson certainly thought so. Zavaleta is a Virginia native who moved to San Francisco and got his start in the business by learning the art of ice cream-making in his spare time.
“I'm always a Virginia person no matter what," Zavaleta told me. "Even living in the bay area I was always a Virginia person. When I started my ice cream business, I started selling it at punk shows. It was a real crap show if I'm being honest.”

Nevertheless, Alex Zavaleta had enough of a passion for his new hobby that he began dreaming of opening an ice cream business and soon had friend, Meryl Hillerson, on board.
"Meryl was the best baker I know," he said. "She was good at things I could never hope to be good at - making pastries, making caramel..." And so the partnership was born: a magical mashup of ice cream parlor, elite bakery, and local flavors. Zavaleta and Hillerson originally intended to open Charm School in the San Francisco Bay area but when Zavaleta returned to Richmond for a friend's wedding, his Virginia blood sprang back to life.
"I knew that Richmond would be perfect," he said, "but I didn't know if Meryl would go for it - she was born and raised in California."

Thankfully for the East Coast, Hillerson agreed to the change and after two years of planning, the business partners relocated to Richmond, Virginia and opened Charm School in the building which one hosted the old Quirk Gallery.
On the day I visit, my friends and I approach the building from the wrong end of the block, missing out on the giant pop-art Virginia postcard painted on the building's side. We enter Charm School shortly after it opens for the day and are greeted by a soft-spoken Zavaleta who is standing behind the counter. Plenty of natural lights sifts down through the skylights, highlighting the subdued play of green and white on walls and floor. The tables scattered around are made of dark wood with a friendly, community-desk feel. Book-stack wallpaper completes the prep-school feel as your eyes are drawn to the deep bay window and vintage desk inside. And yet for all the tongue-in-cheek propriety, a strong band of humor runs through Charm School. Bathrooms are labeled as being for a “good kid” or a “bad kid.” Funky music from records Zavaleta has personally chosen crackles in the background, accompanying the hum of freezers and chatter.
Meryl and I would not be found as graduates of a charm school,” Zavaleta jokes when asked about the name. “We're a little too far gone for that.”

It was in that tone that they designed the interior of Charm School, and its hours.
I wanted someplace that felt inviting and was open late. So often ice cream places are hurried or cramped. I put 'social club' in the name because I imagined a place me and my friends could sit down and hang out at together if, I don't know, we didn't feel like going to a bar. It's open late, so that's different for an ice cream parlor.”
Charm School opens at noon daily, and we're ready to replace our lunch with a double-scoop cone.
What flavor are you feeling today?” Zavaleta asks.
I'm suddenly glad I've brought three friends. With a menu that changes sometimes weekly, I feel the need to capture the flavors of the moment. The Charm School way is the intuitive way: work with the flavors the season is giving you. Winter means citrus, chocolate, mint, ginger, coffee, tea. And of course the ubiquitous toast & jam flavor, which is a Charm School original.
I don't come from a food background,” says Zavaleta. “My approach is very unconventional. I like toast and jam. Will that work as an ice cream flavor? You're inspired by what is around you and what you like. You're not going to find me flying to Morocco because I'm not Moroccan. This is where I'm from. I'm a Virginia guy.”

Zavaleta and Hillerson try to source their ingredients as locally as possible. Everything you eat at Charm School is created in-house except the sprinkles. I get the chance to watch Zavaleta make fresh cones while Hillerson comes out to introduce herself, then returns to cleaning the churns for yet another batch of ice cream. If Alex Zavaleta is the more vocal of the partners, Meryl Hillerson is the genius behind the baked goods (vegan and classic) and the culinary arts expert. The two hold themselves to a high flavor standard, often remaking batch after batch of ice cream to perfect a flavor, as they did when developing their coffee flavor which pairs their ice cream with coffee from nearby Lamplighter Coffee Roasters.
“It was good,” Zavaleta had told me over the phone a week prior, “but it wasn't amazing. So we kept working on it.”
By the time I try out Charm School, a perfected coffee ice-cream is one of the flavors in the case.

Guys, everybody get something different so we can try them all!” I command.

I choose earl grey and orange cardamom with the addition of toasted marshmallow, piped and torched right there on top of my cone. Among the other flavors we try (molasses, ginger, cereal milk, peanut butter fudge, mint chip, banana, coffee), one thing stands out: the fact that Zavaleta and Hillerson have tapped into their essence. The earl grey isn't just right, it's an archetype. All other earl greys are as naught before Zavaleta's and Hillerson's. Likewise, when you taste the peanut butter fudge, you realize that this is the height that all kinds of peanut butter fudge flavors were trying (and failing) to attain. Flavor after flavor prove that this new addition to Richmond food scene will become somewhat of destination for food and ice-cream lovers everywhere.
Zavaleta and I chat while he rolls cone after cone, then I return to my friends and finish my ice cream. We're quiet, subdued, enveloped in the quiet of the “school room” and the flavors of the accompanying ice cream.

Then just like that I snap a few more photos, wave goodbye to Zavaleta, and head out the green door to stand in front of the giant postcard and act like a tourist. Charm School is an instant favorite and sure enough, I visit again on my way to DC just a week later. Hillerson and Zavaleta have created a new regime: all other ice cream shops will now be graded on a curve. Welcome to Charm School – the proper kind of elite.

1 comment

  1. Oh wow... the colors, the flavors- everything looks amazing! This makes me miss living in Virginia, but ice-cream is always a perfectly logical reason to move back, right?

    Rachel Emily