Dining in the early 1600s was simple, and, for the most part, sugar-free. The hunting and gathering required for survival was a physical work that the Powhatan people had mastered and the Colonists floundered at.
Shooting foul or “angling” for fish in royal game preserves in England had been a pastime for some of the settlers, but Virginia’s wild forests and broad rivers provided a challenge. A staple of the English diet became the box turtle — it was the settlement-era “meal ready to eat.”
Capt. John Smith commanded in Jamestown that a man who didn’t work, didn’t eat. He also tried to disperse the Colonists and make them more self-reliant so as to not use up all the foodstuffs.
Smith was back to England in 1609, usurped from his leadership role and injured in a gunpowder accident. During the winter of 1609-1610, the settlers huddled together in Jamestown fort unable to leave because of Powhatan attacks, and Jamestown’s supplies ran out.
The settlers ate their cats and horses. A few ate their dead colleagues, and one man, his wife. An observer compared the few survivors to skeletons screaming, “We are starved! We are starved!”
Thomas West, Lord Delaware, arrived with more supplies just as the exhausted settlers were about to leave Virginia for home. Things got better from there.
Just two months after William Byrd II advertised the 1737 “laying off” of Richmond’s streets and properties, Richard Levens converted his house into a tavern at the northeast corner of Cary and 23rd streets in what is known today as Shockoe Bottom. Gabriel Galt’s City Tavern, built circa 1787 and visited by George Washington, stood for decades at 19th and Main streets.
The Bird-in-the-Hand was established nearby at the northwest corner of 25th and Main streets. (One of Shockoe Bottom’s first trendy bars opened with the Bird-in-the-Hand name
During the late 18th century, the city’s gentlemen read international papers and discussed the day’s news over coffee, tea and other more intoxicating beverages at Nathan Bell’s Tavern, which stood in what is now the western parking lot of Main Street Station. A plaque on the station’s Main Street wall attests to Bell’s place in civic life. Bell’s provided a gathering place much like today’s Café Gutenberg at 17th and Main. The café’s world newspapers, books, discussions and excellent coffee provide a sense of civil urbanity today.
Washington’s Meal-Mouthed Lie
In April 1791, President George Washington dined at the Eagle Tavern, built in 1787, on the south side of Main between 12th and 13th streets. He ate his breakfast early and then prepared for a trip
This caused Washington to tell a lie.
During his travel into Richmond, Washington’s path was crowded by well-wishers on horses whose hooves kicked up annoying dust. He understood a similar fuss would be made during his travel south. He wrote in his diary, “I caused their enquiries respecting the time of my setting out to be answered that I should endeavor to do so before 8 o’clock but I did it a little after five, by which means I avoided the inconveniences above mentioned.”
Mary Randolph is described by mid-19th-century Richmond historian Samuel Mordecai as “one of the remarkable and distinguished persons of her day.”
Her Virginia Housewife guide to the culinary and domestic arts published in 1824 remains in print and provides an invaluable perspective on Virginia domestic culture of the early 1800s.
“Molly” was born at her grandfather’s Chesterfield County plantation, Ampthill.
She wed first cousin David Meade Randolph, and together they had eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood. By 1798, Molly and David built a large house with extensive grounds bounded by Fifth, Main, Sixth and Cary streets that friend Edmund Wilson Rootes dubbed, “Moldavia.” Rootes, accounting for Mary Randolph’s genius for entertaining, crowned her “Queen Molly.”
Today she’d have a show on the Food Network.
David Randolph’s cousin Thomas Jefferson fired him from his patronage job. In response, Molly opened a boardinghouse in the 1300 block of East Cary Street.
Mordecai says, “Mrs. R., who lacked neither energy or industry, determined to open a boarding house … There were few more festive boards than the Queen’s. Wit, humor and good fellow-ship prevailed, but excess rarely.”
Queen Molly perfected her kitchen science — but she also received assistance from her subjects, the servants, as Karen Hess notes in her commentary on a 1984 reprint of Virginia Housewife. They stood in front of a large main fireplace, swinging cranes and using devices to control cooking temperatures. Molly kept kitchen operations smooth. She wrote, “Let everything be done at the proper time, keep everything in its proper place, and put everything to its proper use.”
Molly’s old boarding house evolved into the five-story Columbian Hotel. The Evacuation Fire of April 1865 destroyed it, but flour-mill owner Lewis D. Crenshaw built on the site the trapezoidal, riverboat-like Columbian Block to house the busy Richmond Corn and Flour Exchange.
The Bread Riot
In 1863, Richmond as capital of the Confederacy was strained by the war. The working-class women of Richmond couldn’t afford to feed their families and were exasperated by the Confederate government’s incompetence and disorganization. On April 2, 1863, a group led by mother-of-four Mary Jackson marched on Capitol Square to demand explanations and relief from Gov. John Letcher.
When they received no answers at the Capitol, the women became a mob shouting, “Bread or blood!” and brandished axes, knives and pistols. They smashed windows in the shopping district and looted the stores. A thousand or more, mostly women with some children and a few men, rioted for two hours. Mary Jackson and several accomplices were arrested and jailed.
In late 1864, “Starvation Balls” were organized by Richmond belles to entertain the troops. No food was available, and the strongest drink was “Victory Punch” — water. The only intoxicant was the beauty of the ladies.
Prior to 1900, saloons equaled the number of churches in Richmond. It also became a city of breweries.
David G. Yuengling Jr. operated the James River Steam Brewery in Richmond from 1866 to 1878 at the site on what was called Wharf Street near Rocketts, a shipping port area. His father started the Yuengling brand in 1829.
Large tunnels designed to cool the frothy refreshment were cut into riverside bluffs. Those tunnels today are amid the massive Village of Rocketts Landing development and plans are to incorporate them into a restaurant, according to a Rocketts Landing spokesperson.
Richmond’s saloon boom stopped due to statewide prohibition of liquor-by-the-drink in 1916. Federal prohibition was repealed in 1933, but in Virginia liquor-by-the-drink wasn’t re-established until 1968. Prior to that era, at clubs like the dance venue Tantilla Gardens, 3817 W. Broad St., one could bring bagged bottles, put them under the table, and order set-ups.
During this period, sandwich and sweets shops, “confectionaries” and delicatessens abounded. The New York Deli, 2920 W. Cary St. in Carytown, was started in 1938 by German immigrants and exists today as a neighborhood gathering place that shifts from casual dining spot to happening hangout as the evening rolls on. And its roof was the staging ground for a Times Square-style raising of the ball to ring in 2007.
One place that didn’t have to deal with the liquor issue was the Chesterfield Tearoom, 900 W. Franklin St., in the Chesterfield Apartments that opened in 1904. In its early days, the tearoom was presided over by a waiter in tails. Residents and visitors dressed for lunch and dinner. The Chesterfield Tearoom operated under various managements until 1988, at which time the Richmond Times-Dispatch said it was the oldest running restaurant in the city. The elegant room is now home to tapas newcomer Cous Cous.
Dining In or Out
From 1949 to 1977, Richmond had its own chain of Lighthouse Diners, known for their moderne deco chrome décor and rooftop lighthouse cupolas. A downtown Lighthouse was demolished while the second at 1224 N. Boulevard is now a medical supply store. After years of dormancy, the Lighthouse flagship at 1240 Hull St is undergoing a revival.
A surviving Richmond chain is Bill’s Barbecue, founded in 1931, and some Richmonders can remember ordering food from their parked cars and having servers deliver meals to a tray that hung in the car window. And the chocolate pies remain the nemesis of diners hoping to exercise a little will power.
An unassuming building at 4118 W. Broad St. housed two well-known eating establishments, the Clover Room (1946-1978) and Stanley Stegmeyer’s Hodgepodge Restaurant (1979-1984).
The Clover Room was beloved by Richmond families for post-church lunch with 30 kinds of sandwiches and by the bobby-soxer set from Thomas Jefferson High School for its 30 flavors of homemade ice cream and sundaes.
Stanley Stegmeyer’s flamboyance replaced the Clover Room’s lack of pretense. It was the creation of Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House founder John Dankos. Stegmeyer’s costumed servers (“We dress for dinner,” as harem girls, Superman and Batman, monks, and prisoners in striped outfits) worked in rooms ranging from a White House dining room to a Jungle Room equipped with a two-story waterfall and 7-foot-long alligator. There was the Library, Jail, Hula Hut and the Fortune Teller’s. Two railroad cabooses became lounges.
The artistic counter-culture of Richmond found their gathering places at institutions such as the Main Street Grill (1969-2001) at 17th and Main in the Bottom and at The Village Café in the Fan at 939 W. Grace St. The Village served novelist Tom Robbins and Bruce Springsteen in its arch-columned and stained-glass bohemian cathedral, which opened in 1958. The Village moved its marble-topped bar and wooden booths in 1992 to 1001 W. Grace St. And just down the street, Richmond vegetarians enjoyed the restaurant-in-a-townhouse and courtyard dining of Grace Place, 826 W. Grace St., (1973-1996).
Themed restaurants that were entertainment destinations unto themselves began opening in Richmond during the 1970s.
Around 1973, dormant Shockoe Slip began its revival with Sam Miller’s Exchange and The Warehouse, both of which reflected the old warehouse history of Shockoe and the “fern and brass bars” of the ’70s. The two soon combined at 1210 E. Cary St., and continue as Sam Miller’s Warehouse, offering steaks and seafood.
In 1975, one of Richmond’s biggest “theme” restaurants, the Victorian-inspired Tobacco Company Restaurant, opened in Shockoe Slip. Its mixture of antique touches, including an Otis elevator out of the Consolidated Edison building in New York City and the staircase salvaged from Richmond’s St. Luke’s Hospital, set a standard for the region.
The opening of O’Briensteins in 1976 brought thematic, hometown managed dining to suburban Henrico County’s Regency Square Mall. Restaurateur powerhouse Dick Ripp masterminded this Irish-Jewish combo — one of the region’s first bagel places. The mall restaurant eventually closed in the early 1990s.
Anyone still have one of their original Hot Bagels T-shirts?