Not bound by tradition, a passionate culinary community is writing the city’s food story—down to the last detail
It’s a Friday night and I’m ogling what could only be described as exquisite lollipops. I’ve joined the buzzing crowd of bon vivants who take to the streets of Richmond, Virginia, for the First Fridays art stroll, and I can’t help but feel I’ve stepped into a real-life Candyland. Make that A Secret Forest—the actual name of this sweet-as-marzipan downtown confectionery that looks like a vision from the Victorian era.
Working under a task light at the back of the shop sits Los Angeles transplant Vanessa Beller, a culinary school graduate who makes everything by hand and from scratch. Her medium is sugar and edible flourishes—swirls of glitter and gold, imported blossoms, faux butterfly wings—wrapped and tied with a satin bow. More art on a stick than childish impulse, her dainty delectables retail for several dollars a pop and are coveted by big-name fashion designers such as Prada. She built her business on Etsy before opening here last year.
High-end candy isn’t for everyone. Yet such passion projects exemplify today’s Richmond, a city riding a nearly decade-long wave in culinary creativity.
After a few days exploring this multifaceted city, I’ve grown accustomed to stepping off the street and finding myself instantly transported—from the morning I arrived and shook off my travel weariness with a café con leche and coconut risotto cakes at Kuba Kuba, a cafe straight from Havana in the middle of the gracious Victorian houses of the historically protected Fan district.
A block from my new lollipop dealer is my boutique hotel away from home, Quirk. Awash in chic pink walls, Instagrammable local art, and staffers in floral bow ties, it’s equal parts cultural milieu and homage to Wes Anderson aesthetics. Navigating the lobby for coffee each morning proves to be an exercise in dodging photo shoots. Here, even a yogurt parfait is a sublime way to start the day, dolloped with a delicate mound of verjus sorbet.
I quickly discover that outsize delights like these are woven into the fabric of the city. At Lee Gregory’s buzzy ode to mid-Atlantic seafood, Alewife, I turn the heads of nearby diners as I tuck into a savory waffle laced with kimchi, slathered with smoked fish, and sprinkled with bonito flakes. The dish strikes a balance between comforting and startlingly unusual. The restaurant occupies a quiet corner of the historic Church Hill neighborhood—the city’s oldest and one of its loftiest, up on a perch over the churning rapids of the James River—but inside, the din mid-week reaches such a zenith that I strain to hear my waitress.
If Alewife grabs a diner’s attention with the bravado of a ship’s fog horn, Longoven slips into port with the understated elegance of a sailboat. Inside a former paint store over in the up-and-coming Scott’s Addition neighborhood, an open kitchen meticulously prepares seasonally driven, nine-course tasting dinners, as well as a far-reaching à la carte menu.
Enveloped by moody charcoal walls and spare decor, diners find little to distract from the bright flavors and local ingredients that arrive with just enough explanation. “We don’t need an episode of Portlandia at the table,” says chef Patrick Phelan—though the source material is certainly in place.
Phelan and his partners—wife and pastry chef Megan Fitzroy Phelan and fellow chef (and Richmond native) Andrew Manning— made a name for Longoven with a series of sold-out pop-up dinners starting in 2014. Bon Appetit named Longoven one of the best new restaurants in 2016, two years before the doors opened at their brick- and-mortar space.
Phelan refers to the restaurant as “a food-centric experience.” I’d call it an all-out locavore immersion and have rarely felt so cocooned at a restaurant. My sensory-rich meal of small plates included everything from a textural risotto coaxed out of seeds to Spanish mackerel and oyster mushrooms roasted to umami perfection. A gold-dusted toffee bar arrived with the bill. The meal’s only gimmick, it struck me a little like being handed a participation medal as I crossed the finish line—wholly unnecessary but gratifying just the same.
All around Richmond, it’s little details like these that get me— how chefs and owners seem to be so hands-on, they can’t help but pull out all the stops. I get the sense that every last aspect, from the glaze of the dishware to the wallpaper in the bathroom, has long lived in someone’s dream. These are not the soulless results of a developer’s profit-maximizing algorithm.
At the Jasper, a Carytown cocktail bar concocted by a trio of the city’s best barkeeps, the drinks are plenty delicious, from a good-times bourbon-ginger on nitro to the nuanced pleasures of the Night Moves, in which bergamot and dry vermouth join forces with absinthe and Toki Japanese whisky for a dangerously smooth sip. And yet it’s the details that really put this place over the top—right down to the care with which the bartenders brand their hand-chipped ice cubes with a “J” insignia.
COOKING WITH ZEST
Back in Scott’s Addition, Brenner Pass makes its mark with a menu that’s as subtly surprising as it is representative of rising chef Brittanny Anderson. Named for a mountain pass on the border of Italy and Austria, the restaurant celebrates all things Alpine: fondue and schnitzel, diot and speck, and an impressive roster of cheese, alongside dishes with roots in other regions of France and Italy, like steak au poivre and cacio e pepe.
When I first walked into the airy space, all light woods and Edison bulbs, I was almost disappointed by how stylish it was. Surely a place so decidedly on trend couldn’t deliver a lasting culinary impression. And then I sat down to one of the most pitch-perfect lunches I’ve enjoyed in recent memory: buttery littleneck clams and a salad of smoked trout and marcella beans tucked under a zingy heap of radicchio, paired with the house beer—a rustic farmhouse ale brewed by the neighborhood’s cult-favorite Veil Brewing Co. Anderson cut her teeth (and sharpened her chef’s knife) in New York before returning to her native Richmond in 2014 to open Church Hill’s ode to modern German fare, Metzger Bar & Butchery. Brenner Pass came three years later.
Of course, Anderson isn’t the only chef bringing European flavors to Richmond. But she does it with the sort of confident fervor that pervades this city’s most inspired destinations.
The buzz is palpable at the HQ of Blanchard’s Coffee Company, Richmond’s fifteen-year-old craft roaster, and not just because I’m here to slurp spoonfuls of coffee during the weekly public cupping (how professionals taste coffee). As I work my way around the table evaluating various roasting dates of brews from Peru, Columbia, and Ethiopia, I’m struck by the sincerity of everyone around me. Leading us through this “tasting exercise” is a shaggy-haired hipster in a trucker hat gushing about the sparkle of one coffee’s acidity. The bicep of an eager assistant brandishes a tattoo of a coffee plant.
It’s a zeal I encounter again and again—whether for organic flour milled in-house at Sub Rosa Bakery, where locals line up devotedly for wood-fired croissants and loaves of polenta bread; or for heirloom apples favored by George Washington at Blue Bee Cider, where crisp ciders tell fascinating stories.
Over at the cafe-boutique mashup called Pomona in Union Hill, husband-and-wife owners Frayser and Melissa Micou love coffee and plants as much as they excel at creating a perfectly beguiling little urban hideaway. The chalkboard over the bar details shrub flights, toasts, and creative spreads, and my order: a tiny pitcher of iced coffee sweetened just so with condensed milk and cardamom, ginger, and orange zest. Pomona is a soda fountain for the modern era, complete with Shaker-style brooms for sale in the corner.
Across the James River in leafy Forest Hill, Little Nickel also specializes in evoking instant holidays with a menu of “vacation food” and tiki drinks. Even a salad for lunch feels decadent, I discover, when sitting in a green banquette and gazing out at palm leaves and flamingos (even if just on the wallpaper). Next time I doubt I’ll be able to resist ordering the punch bowl.
For all the one-of-a-kind spaces I discover, none can hold a candle to the singularity of l’Opossum. As much a den of hedonism as it is a cozy French bistro, this Oregon Hill standout is the flamboyant manifestation of chef David Shannon’s psyche. There are David statues galore, an array of commemorative plates on the walls, Andy Warhol-designed wallpaper on the tables, and a phallic stained-glass window above it all. It’s a kitsch klatch where every last piece has been carefully considered.
With the scene set, each dish puts on a show—from the “Fabergé egg bedazzled with caviar” and the oysters rockefeller that come with a tableside absinthe fog to the “vegan orgy on Texas Beach” (crispy papadums with vegetable spreads), named for an isolated stretch of woods and sunbathing rocks along the river. For dessert, over-the-top choices include a rum-soaked bundt cake speared with a pirate flag and a rich chocolate flambé that comes with a side of pyrotechnics.
It’s only natural, then, that most locals seem to light up when mentioning the place. “Dazzling” is the word fellow restaurateur Kendra Feather uses. “It’s like, ‘how did that come out of [Shannon’s] brain?’” she says. “Because only he could do that.” Feather knows sense of place. She owns a handful of neighborhood anchors around town, including the Roosevelt,
Church Hill’s breakout hit that helped put Richmond’s food scene—and its take on new Southern cuisine—on the map when it opened back in 2011.
Feather’s latest hotspot, Laura Lee’s in Forest Hill, pays homage to the so-called fern bars of the past—America’s first cocktail bars aimed at attracting women—with a bright, everyone’s-welcome feel (it even offers a kids’ happy hour). Forget the Tiffany lamps and Harvey Wallbangers of the 1970s; here local art hangs on the walls, cocktails star fresh ingredients like lavender and cucumber juice, and a rolling garage door lets in plenty of light to sustain all the foliage inside.
Jason Alley keeps evolving, too. Widely credited with raising downtown Richmond’s culinary profile starting in 2002 with Comfort, his homey haven for pimento cheese and refined meat and threes, the renowned chef continues to push his adopted hometown in new directions.
His latest opening, Bingo, invests in what he considers the next big thing: “eatertainment.” At this sprawling restaurant, brewery, and arcade in a onetime bingo hall in Scott’s Addition, revelers come for the menu of creative bar food (think corndog-style pickles), highly drinkable IPAs and lagers, and to lose themselves in a vintage video game or round of Skee-ball. Back at Comfort, Alley and his business partner have doubled down on their commitment to the community. All net profits from the restaurant now support Feedmore, a regional hunger-relief organization.
Around the corner from Comfort, a bronze statue of Maggie Walker—the US’ first female bank owner, a former schoolteacher, and the daughter of a freed slave—stands as a reminder of the Jackson Ward neighborhood’s onetime prosperity as Black Wall Street.
Dining options in this small, resurgent district run the gamut: There’s Mama J’s, a soul-food standby where a veritable cross- section of Richmond food lovers convene to dig into flaky catfish nuggets, crispy fried chicken, and candied yams on white tablecloths. The servers wear t-shirts that say “Welcome home!” and fluffy coconut cake tempts from a glass-domed pedestal on the bar. Mama J’s trademark friendliness earned the restaurant a James Beard award nomination for outstanding service. On the opposite end of the block, Saadia’s Juicebox doles out good vibes for the wellness-minded in the form of yoga classes and acai bowls, superfood lattes, and juice shots laced with turmeric and wheat grass.
More dichotomies abound within a radius of a few blocks. The sexy sophistication of Restaurant Adarra, a new haven for Basque- inspired dishes and rare wines, balances out the level of cheap thrills found among the fake blood splatter of GWARbar. The latter is owned by Michael Derks, who has played guitar for Richmond’s homegrown, satirical heavy-metal band for three decades. (His stage name Balsac the Jaws of Death tells you most of what you need to know about GWARbar’s over-the-top vibe.)
In Richmond, it turns out, there doesn’t need to be a lollipop in sight for a food lover to feel like a kid in a candy store. In the words of Alley: “At one time, one of the best things about Richmond was how close we were to other places. Now, Richmond is pretty rad.”