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Illustration by Doug Thompson
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Paul Keevil opened Millie’s in 1989, and it has remained a destination in Shockoe Bottom Photo by Isaac Harrell
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The Roosevelt is leading a food-based revitalization of North Church Hill. Photo by Isaac Harrell
In the past three years, Richmond's cooking stars have graced the pages of Garden & Gun, Esquire, GQ.com, Saveur, Bon Appétit, and the New York Times, and one made the ranks of top chefs in the nation, garnering recognition from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, but is it enough to declare that we have arrived?
Is Richmond, with its seeming phone book full of dining destinations, ready to call itself a food town? Or, perhaps more significantly, is the rest of the country acknowledging that status?
The answer may require more than a perceptive palate. Determining whether Richmond has ascended to the pantheon of foodie havens involves working a complex equation that factors in more than the number of restaurants in town or whether this or that local chef can hold their own against Bobby Flay.
But it's a question that's worth asking, according to local chefs and some notable national food writers who've had chance to eat in Richmond.
"For sure, Richmond is a food town," says Todd Kliman, dining editor for the Washingtonian, who knows a thing or two about Richmond food. His latest book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine , is set partly in Richmond, which necessitated a good bit of research here — and, by extension, a good bit of eating here.
But Kliman, being the well-traveled reviewer, has done a good bit of eating in many places and says that while Richmond is a food town to be reckoned with, it might want to stop measuring itself against the likes of cities along the Interstate 95 corridor like Washington or Charleston, S.C., New York — or even Atlanta.
Richmond's place as a food town "has nothing to do with a question of where Richmond ranks with regards to other cities," he says, calling such comparisons unreliable.
In fact, what Richmond has is something that the big-name dining destinations miss.
"What I enjoy when I'm in Richmond is a lot of the restaurants have a spirit of fun about them," Kliman says, suggesting that sometimes the big cities can almost try too hard to capture what Richmond restaurateurs do with easy charm. "It can be kind of contrived or studied or self-conscious, and I don't see that in a lot of the places I've been in Richmond."
Indeed, what may be the best measure of Richmond's rise as a place for good eats is found within the neighborhoods of these restaurants. In 1999, pioneering restaurateur Jimmy Sneed, a James Beard nominee in 1995 and 1996, penned an essay in Richmond magazine that assessed the city's food culture. He considered everything from the state of cuisine to the likelihood that then-new civic projects like the floodwall, the Canal Walk and Tobacco Row residential development might foster a restaurant revolution. In the end, he pondered the question of whether Richmond might be on the cusp of a cultural renaissance and whether food might take it there. Sneed's assessment: "The answer is a resounding — maybe." Regardless, he predicted, "I'll bet you dinner is going to happen."
More than a decade later, with Sneed's restaurant The Frog and the Redneck a happy memory, the now older and wiser chef alters his answer very little.
"Maybe," says Sneed, who closed his 10-month-old Carytown restaurant, BlowToad, on Dec. 10. "It's a very complex thing."
By complex, Sneed means that Richmond's food-town status may better describe a town being rebuilt with the aid of its young, pioneering restaurateurs.
"They go hand in hand," Sneed says of restaurant openings and urban revitalization. "Is Church Hill undergoing a revitalization? The restaurants certainly play a big part in redevelopment of that neighborhood. Jackson Ward? I would say yes.
"Out where I live in Stratford Hills, off Forest Hill Avenue, you've got a Sichuan restaurant, Evo, that's quite good. You've got Chris DiLauro from Bacchus and Johnny Giavos and Manny [Mendez] just opened Galley. Is that going to help anchor the neighborhood and create a richer living environment? Absolutely."
It's a pattern of food-inspired revitalization that Quirk Gallery exhibitions manager Maggie Smith is well acquainted with. She moved here in 2004 from Atlanta. Though no cook, she knows her way around restaurants: Her partner, Dave Chamblin, served as sous chef to Shaun Doty, chef of former Atlanta hotspot Mumbo Jumbo, owned by the famed Guenter Seeger. Smith and Chamblin had eaten their way to Atlanta via Philadelphia and Richmond.
"In 2004, I felt like we could not eat in Church Hill — and now we go there to eat," Smith says, recalling a time not so long ago that the city's up-and-coming home to such dining destinations as the Roosevelt and the Alamo was a veritable dining desert. "I feel like what's happening in Richmond — and what has been happening in Richmond — reflects the same thing as what happened in Atlanta in the late 1990s."
In some ways, Richmond has always seen itself as a restaurant town, says Sneed, though he chuckles at the mention of the long-in-the-tooth urban legend that Richmond has or had the highest per-capita number of restaurants in the nation. (Using 2010 census data, the Richmond/Petersburg region with 1.25 million residents had 7.31 full-service restaurants per 10,000 people. In San Francisco with its 4.3 million residents, there were 11.1 restaurants per 10,000 people.)
As in Atlanta, Richmond's restaurant renaissance seems centered around neighborhood revitalization and often around the inspiring reclamation of landmark buildings.
Maggie Smith's Atlanta friend Ria Pell, who was on the Food Network show Chopped in November, opened her Bluebird restaurant in a decayed Atlanta neighborhood on Memorial Drive in 2000. It was a lunch-counter dive supercharged with all the attitude you'd expect from an owner whose trademark denim coveralls and tattoos made her as interesting as the food she served.
"Ria was definitely the first person to go in [that] area. Now it's a whole strip of restaurants and bars [and] tattoo shops," Smith says. "[That] resurgence of Cabbagetown and Candler Park resonates with what's happening with the Broad Street corridor."
Paul Keevil, owner of Millie's, LuLu's and Tio Pablo, found much the same environment as Pell did in Atlanta when he arrived in Richmond from Los Angeles back in the late 1980s. Keevil already was accustomed to taking one man's trash and making it into a gourmand's treasure.
In Los Angeles, Keevil, a bass player with real chops, had been a part of the mid-1980s West Coast punk revolution that included such luminaries as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Go-Go's and John Doe of the seminal Cali punk band X.
"I taught the first Go-Go's player to play bass," he says without boast.
But music only makes millions for a few, so Keevil turned to his cooking hobby, and he became part of the restaurant revival there.
"I took over a little place there, a little diner," Keevil says. "Millie and Jack were a retired couple and, you know, Jack made some home fries. Horrible food, but lovely people."
Needless to say, Keevil, a London native with a penchant for the Indian "take-away" of his youth, layered many of those flavors from his childhood on the traditional diner food of the old Millie's.
"That's where the Devil's Mess came from, which is a Millie's signature dish for brunch. It just worked," he says, referring to its popular deconstructed omelet. His lunch counter became the post-show, post-hangover hangout for the Brat Packers, Pee-wee Herman, Annie Lennox and Graham Nash.
When Keevil moved to Richmond, he knew the idea would work here, too.
"It was just the right time," he says of the Richmond Millie's, which he chose to open in 1989 within the city's tobacco warehouse district.
"People thought I was out of my mind, but to me, the premise is, ‘You do things right or you don't do them right,' " he says. "To me, it's easier to do it right than wrong, and right off the bat, we did really well at Millie's."
The neighborhood focus of Richmond's restaurant revolution is certainly part of the town's charm for Kaitlyn Goalen, national editor of Tasting Table , an online New York-based foodie site. An L.A. native, Goalen says it's only been in the past couple of years that Richmond has shown up as more than a blip on her restaurant radar. Since then, she's traveled here "a couple of times" and found herself pleasantly surprised by the level of sophistication.
"It seems like people are taking these storied buildings and sprucing them up and adding an interesting feel and tone on the inside and then doing an interesting interpretation on classic Southern cuisine," Goalen says.
It's a path to improvement that, to her, is as much about preservation as it is about rewriting Southern food history.
"I like Jason Alley's restaurants a lot. Revitalization of downtown seems to be a high point on his agenda," she says, referring to Alley's Broad Street mainstay, Comfort, as well as his more recent off-Broad location, Pasture. "But I also liked the Magpie a lot; I don't know if that would be on a nationally recognized list yet." Still, she compliments its imaginative menu.
"There's another place called Lunch that I went to that goes back to taking old buildings or taking the look of the neighborhood and running with that," she says, detecting "a little bit of a dive bar feel and a greasy- spoon feel. It was really a lovely place to stumble upon."
"The real question is, is Richmond a foodie town?" asks Sneed, ever the skeptic, and always as much the sharp-tongued critic as he is the skilled chef.
Sneed purses his lips, he laughs nervously, he fidgets, he squints. "Here's the problem. If you took the five chefs in Richmond and polled them on their favorite places to go out to eat, it's a very small list," he says. "It'd be the same three places. That's the reality of it."
And in Goalen's view?
"It's tricky. The thing that's hard for me to separate is, is what's happening in Richmond particular to Richmond, or is it something happening across the country right now? I think honestly it's more the latter."
She also points to Birmingham, Ala., and Knoxville, Tenn.
"Either way you cut it, it's good news," she says. "Chefs are suddenly celebrities, and people are more interested … in traveling for great restaurants."
Goalen agrees with Sneed that Richmond's star remains faint in comparison to places like Atlanta or Charleston. But in her judgment, it's less about a lack of good food than a lack of exposure.
"I think what's going on in Richmond is something you can see going on in multiple cities in the South," she says. "But I feel like it's not on the national radar yet even though it maybe should be. I've had meals in Richmond equal to the meals I've had in those places."
For whatever the reason, Goalen says, Richmond is "one or two years behind in getting the word out, but not in terms of talent."
The Washingtonian's Kliman brings up The Roosevelt, seemingly the restaurant du jour, in making his point.
"One of the places I've had the most fun at has been The Roosevelt," he says. "It's in the vein of a lot of the places cropping up around the country. It's comfortable, it's quirky, it's collapsing a lot of boundary lines, no great division between appetizers and entrées."
And what he found on his plate had depth. "There was a lot of detail that went into the cooking," he says. "I [also] loved seeing either an all or mostly Virginia wine list, which shouldn't be so risky in Virginia, but it is."
Goalen also gives props to Secco Wine Bar in Carytown, which escaped her notice too long for her to write about it (Tasting Table focuses on new restaurants), but not long enough for her to admit to going back more than once.
"They had wines on their list that I have a hard time finding in New York sometimes," she says. "It was really clear that they took care to fine-tune their list."
But equally important to Goalen was what Secco was producing from its kitchen. "The food at a place like that could be an afterthought, and it definitely wasn't."
At Peter Chang China Café, located somewhat improbably in the big-box land of the Far West End, Goalen found an unexpected treat, one that gave her immense hope for Richmond's sense of taste.
"I think it's really sort of a testament to the willingness, the state of Richmond diners, the fact that [Peter Chang] is there," she says. "It's a lot of really intense flavors and requires a willing palate. It seems like Richmond diners are really into it ... as opposed to shying away."
Richmond, in Goalen's view, is part of a larger trend that has seen the country give new respect to the culinary traditions of the South. But despite the fact that Richmond was a bit ahead of this curve, the city remains in the shadow in terms of recognition.
"I think [recognition is] starting to happen in Richmond, but I can't think of someone in Richmond who has the clout of a Sean Brock [the Charleston-based owner of Husk and McCrady's]. He's probably the most recognized chef in all of the South and one of the most recognized in the country probably."
She points to other cities, like New Orleans and Atlanta, that have produced winners of prestigious James Beard Foundation awards, and notes that while Richmonders have been among semifinalists for the honors (Dale Reitzer of Acacia was a semifinalist for Best chef mid-Atlantic in 2010, 2011, 2012), none have yet taken the top prize.
That said, Goalen says, "I would definitely not put all my eggs in the one basket [of] the James Beard Awards as far as what cities matter from a culinary standpoint."
Better, she says, is to recognize that a smaller town sometimes simply means a lower profile even when the eating is high caliber. The trick is that becoming the next "it" food town is a crapshoot.
"I feel like what happens lately in smaller cities across the country is you get one chef who is ambitious and opens a couple of restaurants and gets national attention and becomes a media darling, that pushes other people forward," Goalen says.
Perhaps Brock was Richmond's brush with media darling status, at least allowing us an "I knew him when" claim. A Virginia native and former sous chef at Richmond's Lemaire, where he worked under Walter Bundy, Brock left in 2003, chasing a bright future.
While we await our next media darling, perhaps it's enough to celebrate Richmond's cultural and neighborhood revitalization with a toast to the Southern cooking that may well have helped spur it on.
Jason Alley opened Comfort 10 years ago. Well before the Southern food trend took root, he was serving meatloaf and squash casserole. Pioneering on his stretch of Broad Street was intentional.
"It's always been a concern to me," he says, of his decision to locate downtown. "I always want to be sure we're doing the best that we can to be a part of the city, not just to go out and make money."
And just as the city's revitalization is now catching up with him, he's also pleased to see Southern cuisine at last getting its due. "My question would be ‘Why did it take so long for that to be the case?' When I moved to Richmond, the only places you were getting Southern food were at lunch counters."
Alley has done a fair job of getting a bit of national attention. When Eric Ripert (a former sous chef under Sneed in D.C.) came to town, he made a point of visiting Alley's Comfort not once, but twice. Alley also has graced the pages of Bon Appétit, appeared at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, and helped to lure the Southern Foodways Alliance here in June.
"I think we've become a better food town because being in the South and being a Southern chef is good now," Alley says. "Before, if you weren't cooking French or Italian or Spanish, some Old World-style food, you weren't doing serious cooking. Once we started truly embracing what we are, the cooking is coming along as well."
And it's important that local chefs have already discovered another key ingredient necessary if Richmond is to become a food draw for those beyond the metro area. Few chefs in town are satisfied relying solely on off-the-shelf ingredients from large supply wholesalers.
Locally sourced ingredients, from fruits, mushrooms and vegetables to meats and sausages, and even to beers, wines and spirits, are now more the rule than the exception.
"There's definitely now, for lack of a better word, the Virginia sense of artisanal terroir," Goalen says. "What chefs sort of celebrate these days is, ‘I got these grits from this family-run place.' "
Both Goalen and Kliman point to such regional products as oysters, gristmills making artisanal milled grits and flours, a veritable bumper crop of high-caliber craft breweries, and local makers of cheeses, sausages and smoked meats. And the restaurants, as much as the producers, are taking pride in sourcing their ingredients.
"One way to judge a restaurant town is if you look at the cuts of meats being offered," Kliman says. "Restaurants that are really behind the times are those offering cuts that are … what's the word … not reflecting the general culture of chefs these days. Chicken breasts, things like that." More impressive is when things like quail, venison and rabbit show up on menus. "These are restaurants trying to put their stamp on things … and give diners something they might not be able to prepare at home."
There's plenty of that in Richmond's restaurants these days, Keevil says.
"Without going into too much analysis, it is a food town now," says Keevil, though he thinks a bit more baking time is in order. "I think we're beginning. I think we're out of the gate. I think there are people that raise the bar for other people coming along. We've started talking about it as a food town."
Still, our sonar profile remains relatively low in some quarters. Take for instance Colman Andrews, editorial director with TheDailyMeal.com and best known as a co-founder and longtime editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine. Andrews is also the father of a Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore.
"Richmond is not a town that would have been on my radar as a food town," Andrews says, acknowledging his view — or lack of one — on Richmond about a year ago. "But knowing [my daughter] was going down there, the first thing on my mind is, ‘Where can I eat?' So I started doing some research."
As a result, he says, he's developed a list for the next time he's clearing out the dorm for summer break. Already, he says, "I've been to a few places that would be worth mentioning," noting Buz and Ned's as well as Mamma 'Zu, "which are places I would certainly go back to."
Others on his growing list come from conversations with a friend and Virginia-based chef. "I'm very interested in The Roosevelt, and I've been assured I'll have some of the best pimento cheese ever invented," he says, also noting the restaurant's chicken skin sliders, "which I'm highly looking forward to."
Can Can, Lemaire and the Black Sheep are also likely to get a visit from this college dad.
Part of Andrews' anticipation is linked to his review of these restaurants' menus.
"This isn't foolproof," he says of using menus as a predictor of a worthwhile dining experience, but "you can tell a lot if places are doing the standard everyone is doing or if they have some local personality."
Andrews isn't so sure that a true chef must arrive through the traditional culinary- school route or must be tested in the fire of a Michelin Guide kitchen. Rather, he says, good chefs happen naturally as a town develops a food culture — of the sort Richmond has developed over recent years — and those chefs feed, so to speak, off one another.
"What I think is important is that there's a community of chefs, because that's when people start sharing resources and sharing staff," Andrews says. "It's common that a young sous chef shows promise and the restaurant he's working at doesn't have room and so they call the place down the street and say, ‘Hey, I've got this guy.' "
And as that guy then moves up the rungs, he's later likely to reach back to help the next guy or gal. In the end, Andrews says, whether one's formative cooking years were spent at Le Cordon Bleu or in the prep kitchen of the local mom-and-pop eatery matter only as much as the smile on the face of a satisfied diner: "The proof ultimately is on the plate."
But Sneed isn't ready yet to stop asking questions about Richmond's ‘foodie-town' status.
"Is there hope for us?" he repeats, mulling whether the fact that food writers are turning their focus on Richmond's current batch of kitchen talent is enough to sustain a true food revolution, whether clever dishes are enough to match kitchen consistency and classical training, and whether the exposure Richmond chefs need is to celebrity lights or to the discipline of learning at the feet of a master chef.
He ponders a long time before lifting his head to display his trademark toothy grin. "I think the desire is there. The chefs, they're young and they're horny and they have the desire. The question is, where do you get the exposure? Certainly not from the Food Network."