If you know much about the Charlottesville food scene, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Mas Tapas, located on a corner of Downtown Belmont. For nearly twelve years, Mas has been filling tables every night, serving up tapas rooted in the Spanish tradition that are equal parts innovative and familiar. The atmosphere is unassuming and comfortable, despite the restaurant’s enduring popularity. That approachable feel was Chef Tomas Rahal’s goal from the start.
“When it started, I wanted a small, neighborhood place,” he explains, seated at one of the restaurant’s booths on a rainy morning. It is long before Mas will open for its daily dinner service, but Tomas has already been here for several hours, firing up the brick ovens used to make the restaurant’s artisan-style breads.
Espresso in hand, fresh pastry on the table, it is clear Tomas relishes the solitude of the morning baking, the gentle smell of woodsmoke mixing with those of bread and coffee. This ritual has become a culinary touchstone for the chef, embodying the constant renewal and innovation he tries to infuse into everything about this successful restaurant.
“It teaches you a lot of lessons and discipline,” he says. “I like it because there’s a certain meditative quality to it.”
Learning to bake in the brick hearth has been a journey. “It was a long, painful process learning how to bake because as simple as it is, it is scientific,” Tomas says. “So simple mistakes like mismeasuring salt, or adding salt too early, or using water that is contaminated with chlorine—all hurt the product.”
A dozen years later, the brick hearth supplies most of the restaurant’s breads, enhancing its customers’ experience with yet another mindfully crafted product. The entire package of the Mas is one of genuine love of food, shared experience, and community. It is that kind of heartfelt intention that inspired Jenny Bandy Peterson, owner of Paradox Pastry in Downtown Charlottesville and long-time friend of Tomas, to sponsor a story about him in Our Local Commons—Charlottesville Volume II. She says when she was launching Paradox a few years ago, she was inspired by Tomas’ authentic approach.
“It’s gotta be you,” she says, reflecting on the inspiration that has driven all her choices at the bakery. “Paradox is me, just like I think Mas is Tomas Rahal.”