In the old days, Manakin-Sabot was 100 percent country, as was the restaurant scene typified by Satterwhite's and Brenda's, variations on a down-home theme. If you wanted something a little more sophisticated, there was the Fox Head Inn — or Richmond.
Into this environment came Red Oak Café in 1994, replacing a shuttered barbecue store on Hockett Road, just off U.S. 250. "I went in with the view that Goochland needed a place that was casual but creative," recalls Paul Cruser, the café's founder. "In '94, it was a good mix of horsey people, some local corporate people — there weren't a lot back then; West Creek wasn't open."
On the menu were crab dip, chicken stuffed with Smithfield ham and smoked Gouda, pasta with shrimp and marinara sauce, crab cakes and pork tenderloin, as well as some vegetarian items. It doesn't sound revolutionary, but in eastern Goochland at that time, Red Oak was breaking new ground.
Cruser opened soft, relying on word of mouth at first. His family, including his mother, came to Sunday brunch the third day Red Oak was open. Then came a few real customers — including Dirtwoman, aka Donnie Corker, the well-known Richmond transvestite who recently undertook an abortive run for Richmond mayor. "Somehow, word had spread to Oregon Hill," Cruser says. "I felt we had made the scene."
Craige Perry, who served as Red Oak's co-manager during Cruser's ownership, has many vivid memories — from a waitress' wedding on the patio to the time a snake turned up in the dining room (by Table 13, naturally). Every Nov. 4, she recalls, Red Oak hosted a fundraiser to benefit For the Love of Animals in Goochland. "Paul worked really hard for 13 years, and he made it what it was, a Cheers kind of place."
A Local Favorite Closes
Even with Short Pump's booming retail growth — bringing the number of restaurants within a five-minute drive of Red Oak from four to 47 — the café maintained a loyal clientele, a mix of Innsbrook and West Creek workers, and three ladies who came every day for two-hour lunches after riding their horses. Acoustic guitarists and a jazz trio brought in folks in the evening.
"If you've got a good, solid thing, then your people will always come back," Perry says. "I've never felt there was anything wrong with good, healthy competition."
But building maintenance was a constant struggle, including well, septic and drainage issues, Cruser notes; in addition, the amount of seating was limited and the rent rose, causing what he calls "diminishing returns."
"After 12 years, I negotiated a deal with a guy who was a good, loyal, regular customer," Cruser says. "He wanted to get into the business, while I wanted to step back."
Glen Allen businessman Andy Keener purchased the café, while Cruser stayed on as manager for two years, leaving in 2007 to start Butcher Block Market in Oilville with James "Shay" White, owner of the Gray Bear Grille.
Some of the old staff, including Perry, stayed on for a couple more months, but she says the atmosphere changed, with less attention to detail. A few months later, in December 2007, the café closed. According to the new owners, there was no kitchen equipment left.
Worse was the sense of loss for both longtime employees and customers. "It was sad," Cruser notes. "I still miss the people. I think the Red Oak will always be missed."
Keener, a hotel-management degree holder who now works as guest-service manager at the new Westin hotel on West Broad Street, says the closing may have seemed sudden to onlookers, but from his point of view, it wasn't. The aging building's problems and resulting costs had drained his budget, he says. "I wasn't willing to put any more money into it." A potential buyer backed out at the last minute, so Keener closed Red Oak.
He says he doesn't like to be a Monday-morning quarterback, but notes that the closing was sad for him as well as for the customers and employees. "I try to look at things as a good learning experience," he adds.
The Sunset Also Rises
The building sat empty for more than a year, but in early 2009, Manakin residents noticed some activity around the restaurant. Three new owners — Leslie and Chris Whitney and Tom "Hondo" McGrath — started work on what would become the Sunset Grill.
The interior of the restaurant has seen major changes, primarily to the bar area. A large walk-in cooler that was awkwardly placed in the middle of the restaurant has been moved to the back, just off the kitchen, creating a much larger bar space, featuring a black-granite-and-oak countertop created by local craftsman Tom Atkinson. Terra-cotta tiles form the floor, and a glass partition allows customers in the dining room to have a clear view of the bar. Televisions have been installed, along with satellite radio.
Sunset Grill's soft opening was in late April, and Leslie Whitney, whose background is in home building, said the week before opening that it was coming none too soon. "You wouldn't believe the people who come in here every day and say, ‘You're not open yet?' "
The menu, which offers sandwiches and salads under $10 for lunch, along with a range of dinner entrées from pasta to steaks, won't come as a shock to devotees of Red Oak or Hondo's, which McGrath helped found. Most recently, he was a partner at Enzo's Ristorante and Tavern, an Italian restaurant across the street from Sunset Grill.
Hondo's baby-back ribs are on the menu, and Red Oak's Willoughby Spit hot crab dip is present as well. The Whitney Omelet and Sausages, plus the Virginian sandwich (Smithfield ham and baby Swiss cheese on rye) come from Whitney's Country Restaurant in Gum Spring, owned by Chris Whitney. Although McGrath knows his way around a kitchen, the head chef is Chris Grubbs, formerly of City Limit.
Sunset Grill's owners are banking on a business crowd to come in between 2 and 4 p.m., a "heavy happy hour" that features a limited menu. So far, McGrath says, business has been very strong. "I had anticipated us being busy," he adds, "but it's been busier than I expected."
On weekends, bands play, and McGrath — a big-time Boston Red Sox fan — insisted on having the three TVs so people can come watch sports at the bar. For now, the restaurant will be closed on Sundays, but Leslie Whitney says they plan to "feel it out for the post-church crowd." McGrath says if they do start a Sunday brunch, it would likely happen in the fall.
Cruser, whose gourmet food store has attracted a small but loyal base of customers, says he's got "mixed emotions about going in" Sunset Grill, but he's done what he could to help his friend McGrath, including suggesting the move for the walk-in cooler. Keener says he wishes the new owners well and hopes to visit the grill when he's in the neighborhood.
Perry has visited the new restaurant, and she praises the new look, as well as the menu. "I wish them all the best out there," she says. "They're good people."
Leslie Whitney is optimistic that the restaurant will succeed: "I feel like we're going to have the support of the community and friends." And who knows, maybe even Dirtwoman will show up.