Photo by Adam Ewing
Whole branzino stuffed with lemon and herbs at Enoteca Sogno
During the last several years, we’ve regularly spotlighted the Richmond region’s best new restaurants, but it’s been almost five years since we’ve taken a comprehensive look at the restaurant scene and chosen a top 25. To do this, we drew on the collective wisdom, adventurous palates and varied dining experiences of our team of knowledgeable food writers. There were spirited discussions as we worked to narrow the choices, leading to an additional collection of personal favorites, which you’ll find here, as well. As reviewer Catherine Amos Cribbs notes, “We were looking for places that excelled in their own genre/category, which is why we can put places like Mama J’s or Pasture next to Lemaire and Amuse. They aren’t all five-star luxury restaurants, but they all stand out from their peers in one way or another.”
RELATED: View 12 more Personal Picks of best restaurants around town.
Peter Chang’s nondescript façade in the middle of a western Henrico County shopping center has become the stuff of legend since it first opened its doors in 2012 – and for good reason. This is the perfect combination of real-deal Sichuan cuisine, unique takes on traditional favorites and recipes from the wildest corners of chef Chang’s impressive imagination. If you’re in the mood, try something adventurous like the whole braised fish in chili sauce or the Guangdong Gulu Duck in sweet and sour sauce. And please take the menu phrase “hot and numbing” seriously.
A half-century ago, East Grace Street was adorned with some of the city’s best retail shops. Today, thanks to chef/owner Jason Alley and business partner Michele Jones, the corridor is yet again a destination. A green and blue dip-dyed oasis, Pasture offers Alley something Comfort never could: experimentation. This ain’t your grandma’s Southern cooking, but you’ll still recognize local farms featured in dishes like the Chicken-Fried Mushroom or the Hoppin’ John, a bowl of spicy Carolina Gold rice with house-cured bacon and home-grown Whippoorwill peas and cowpeas. House-made snacks and accouterments abound, from pickles to hot sauces and cream cheese — and, of course, the Virginia-inspired cocktails.
With its dark wood, library-like framework, time-tested service and meaty, come-hither looks, Buckhead’s reminds me of a pair of Ray-Ban classic Wayfarers. Tom Cruise playfully undie-danced in them. Sexy-smart Claire Underwood rules House of Cards from her tortoise-shell specs. Just like the mounted stag’s head that hangs in this iconic, independently owned chophouse, those lenses radiate a moneyed, sporty chic. Flavorfully aged New York strip, buttery escargot, rangy single-malt Scotches, rich, Bordeaux red wines; Buckhead’s serves unfailing comestibles that, like Wayfarers, trump cheap imitations and never go out of style.
Every dish at The Magpie is Owen Lane’s heart on a plate. (OK, that sounds offal. Ba-dum ching.) But seriously, folks, the sheer beauty of the food he puts forth will tell you everything you need to know about how hard he works. He’s also one of the only chefs in town who regularly serves wild game like rabbit and boar; familiar favorites shine, too, like smoked hanger steak complemented by a salted egg yolk. Additionally, the level of front-of-the-house precision matches back-of-the-house creativity. It’s one of Richmond’s most transcendent dining experiences.
No matter where you are, what I call a “restaurant trifecta” doesn’t exist on every corner. By this, I mean a creative chef, an effortlessly accommodating front-of-the-house manager and a skilled mixologist all under one roof. Not only does Heritage have all three, but they’re all in the same family. In two short years, chef Joe Sparatta, his wife, Emilia, and her brother, bartender Mattias Hägglund, have become synonymous with crafting consistently excellent dining experiences — from the first sip of a Bitter Giuseppe (Cynar and Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth) to the last bite of duck with farro, black garlic and hazelnuts — right in the heart of the Fan District.
Red sauce and mozzarella alone do not an Italian restaurant make. And lumping the cuisine into one category is as fruitless as calling everything with smoked pork shoulder and vinegary sauce “barbecue.” This isn’t just Italian, it’s Piedmontese — Northern Italian. Restaurateur Gary York toils as much over the seasonal menu as he does the wine list; they share authenticity, finesse and brilliant curation. Enoteca Sogno embraces simplicity — fresh herbs, gnocchi, Taleggio cheese — and goes out of its way to maintain integrity even as trends and techniques tempt us toward what’s new. Here, they speak fluently a regional dialect of delicious that is worth preserving in an unadulterated state.
Serving up arguably the best soul food in Richmond, Mama J’s is as much a city staple as fried chicken is to Southern cooking — speaking of Southern-fried classics, be sure to order the catfish nuggets to kick off your meal in salivatory style. Daily specials like pot roast and barbecued chicken are well worth a try, though diners can’t go wrong with any menu mainstays. Whether you’re stopping by for a stick-to-your-ribs meal, a cocktail or a slice of chef/owner Velma Johnson’s trademark cakes or cobblers, odds are you’ll feel right at home, and the friendly staff wouldn’t have it any other way.
Yes, Bistro Bobette isn’t cheap. And yes, the parking situation in the Slip isn’t optimal. But whatever your first course is — or even just the perfectly toasted baguettes you snack on while you decide — will make it all worth it. Richmond doesn’t have a ton of options for genuine French cuisine, so when you get hit with salty haricots verts, the kind you could eat in place of fries and never look back, potato salad with house-made mayonnaise, or a tartine piled with vegetables sautéed to exactly the right consistency, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered going elsewhere. This is real food, expertly prepared and suited to any palate. And that’s saying something.
With its captive audience at The Jefferson Hotel and its Richmond traditions, Lemaire has every excuse to engage the cruise control and coast into its third decade. But since its 2009 renovation, chef Walter Bundy has modernized Lemaire into one of RVA’s essential dining experiences. The menu, as much as the décor and service, are polished, elegant and inviting. Lemaire embraces its Virginia roots and showcases local, seasonal and artisanal bounty not with a polite nod, but with front-and-center focus. Most impressively, unlike its first incarnation, Lemaire 2.0 is as relevant for momentous occasions as it is for date night, family Fridays on the patio or late-night munchies at the bar.
10411 N. Harrison St., Richmond, Virginia 23220
There is nothing quite so Richmond as spending a cold winter evening with family or friends at Edo’s Squid, sharing a plate of carbonara, as the snow falls quietly on the city below. But while Edo’s may be known for some of the best pasta in town, it’s the rest of the menu that truly elevates the place: simply prepared seasonal meat and fish that require the highest quality ingredients lest the simplicity allow any flaws to become glaring. Take their soft-shell crab, available starting in May each year, lightly fried ‘til crispy and topped only with a chiffonade of basil — all other molted crustaceans will forever pale in comparison.
This Shockoe Bottom mainstay may be joining Rappahannock and Pasture on Grace Street this spring, but its modern take on Southern classics isn’t going anywhere. Succulent crab cakes, shrimp-and-grits and impossibly crispy fried green tomatoes have kept Julep’s high on Richmond’s list of favorite eateries, but anything Executive Chef Randall Doetzer creates will surely wow. Pair his braised rabbit with lentils, pork belly and local veggie cassoulet with wines from Virginia and the Old World. Or sip one of several genteel cocktails, such as the Jewell-UP with rye and house-made burnt orange-mint syrup.
Saison is bold. Fearless. Tirelessly experimental, but tweaked to perfection. There’s absolutely no talking about Saison without an equal mention of kitchen and bar, as both are turning out some of the most inventive, balanced triumphs in town. Specials like mole rojo beef tongue with tempura oyster mushrooms, butternut squash-bourbon purée and pickled blackberries pop up on the menu, as do spins on classics like the old fashioned cocktail (their “Oaxacan” version boasts reposado tequila, mezcal, Grade B maple syrup and mole bitters). But there’s also room at the table for your buddy who wants a killer burger and a cold craft beer.
Maybe you pick your dinner spots based on celebrity chefdom, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a sucker for all things culinarily Southern, and maybe you aren’t. Trust me: None of that matters where The Roosevelt is concerned. If you miss out on the ever-growing legend that is Lee Gregory and his Southern-hued ingenuity, you are doing yourself a terrible disservice. Will it be busy? Sure. But you’re very, very likely to eat something that will go down in your own personal meal history book. Start by slathering artisan butter on the bacon-fat cornbread, and approach Thomas “T” Leggett’s brilliant bar menu as if there’s a two-drink minimum.
Chester may seem like a hike for city dwellers, but when you discover Sapori’s contemporary spin on authentic Italian flavors at the end of the drive, it no longer feels so far. Family owned and operated by Carini, Sicily, natives Giuseppe and Angela Amato, and their sons, Dario and Luca, this community-centric eatery showcases the work of local artists and uses seasonal, regional ingredients to whip up obscenely generous portions of Sicilian-influenced fare. I recommend Chicken alla Griglia with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. Those looking for indulgence will love the Gnocchi Pepe Nero with bourbon peppercorn cream and sliced rib-eye steak.
151012 Lafayette St., Richmond, Virginia 23221
Under-the-radar. Overachieving. These are words we hear when national critics venerate Richmond’s rising food scene. On a tree-lined neighborhood street that tourists and expense-account-wielding travelers won’t find, across from an indie pharmacy, Mediterranean comfort food abounds. Rustic mezes like keftedes (beef and lamb meatballs) and thoughtful varietals like Assyrtiko (a minerally Greek white wine) flow from a chef more interested in heart and hearty appetites than medals or molecular gastronomy. The lighting, the vibe, the vittles, the communal table — it all adds up to soulful sustenance that is quintessentially 804.
164348 Pouncey Tract Road, Glen Allen, Virginia 23059
Tucked away in a little corner of Short Pump, Maya Tequileria truly delights. The bright décor beckons one to begin the meal with a Classic Margarita that doesn’t come from a mix. Options from the pequeños platas to the entrées fascinate, making it oh-so-difficult to decide. Order the Queso Fundido as a guilty pleasure — chorizo with Chihuahua and goat cheeses, black beans and pico de gallo. Tacos de Carne Asada are cooked to order (medium rare is divine) and the addition of guacamole, rajas (sliced poblano peppers), and chipotle lime dressing makes a delicious dish. For fish fans, the Tropical Glazed Salmon offers a generous portion accompanied by grilled chayotes and mashed sweet plantains.
Patina Restaurant and Bar delivers professional service, a warm and inviting atmosphere, acoustics that allow you to carry on a conversation, and a darned good chef in the kitchen. The menu is creative, yet familiar. You know you’re in the presence of a masterful chef when the flavors are so subtle you almost have to go back to the menu to see what the ingredients are. Trained in Honolulu, Executive Chef Michael Ledesma integrates Pan-Pacific and familiar flavors in dishes such as kalbi (beef short ribs marinated in beer and Korean marinade, then grilled) and malasadas (Portuguese potato doughnuts served in a beautiful orange sauce). The outdoor patio is a joy on mild fall days. Don’t miss this gem.
183332 Pump Road, Richmond, Virginia 23226
Tazza Kitchen’s warm, bustling interior and elegant patio somehow manage to feel inviting in the middle of a parking lot, providing the perfect strip-mall respite. The menu is built to please Fan residents on their weekly shopping jaunt, with classic cocktails including expertly executed Sazeracs and dinner options like brick-oven pizza topped with spicy sausage and black pepper honey. Far West End families who might prefer flat-iron steak will be pleased to find theirs topped with a baked local egg and salsa verde, pairing well with an extensive wine selection. Not to be missed is brick-oven cauliflower, which arrives charred to perfection, or cast-iron goat cheese, a vat of gooey, melted chèvre and marinara served with bread for dipping. The chocolate budino, which comes topped with toasted almonds, olive oil and flaked sea salt, provides the perfect sweet-savory end to the meal.
Situated upstairs in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Amuse Restaurant remains an undiscovered gem for many Richmonders. From the elegant patio to the modern interior with glass walls, this restaurant is perfect to visit for lunch, happy hour from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. daily, or dinner. The cocktail menu changes with the exhibitions — a Cubist cocktail featuring an absinthe ice cube, anyone? The Southern-influenced dinner menu’s appetizers include perfectly crisp curry-fried oysters and house-made beef jerky, followed by entrées like the delicately cooked pork tenderloin with white beans, bacon and Tuscan kale. Don’t miss brunch, when you can sample a Dream Girl champagne cocktail made with St-Germain and passion fruit juice or the Amuse Bacon Bloody Mary, along with a lamb frittata.
Since 2010, owner Julia Battaglini has been giving life to her passion for good wine and good food at Secco in Carytown. Led by chef Mike Braune, Secco churns out stunning Mediterranean-influenced plates and decadent confits that pair beautifully with the seasonally changing — and very affordable — wine selection. Don’t worry if many of the wines on offer are unfamiliar; the highly trained staff is always willing and able to get you into the right glass or place the right cheese and charcuterie onto your plate. Be warned: While the menu changes often, if Battaglini ever takes the fried chickpeas dusted with Aleppo pepper and sea salt off the menu — it’s arguably the best bar snack in town — there might be rioting in the streets.
21400 N. 27th St., Richmond, Virginia 23223
Not everyone knows what they want to do when they grow up. Others, like the young bunch at Dutch & Co., say they’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. Chefs Phillip Perrow and Caleb Shriver mastermind a contemporary menu with classic roots — perfectly soft-boiled eggs, house-made charcuterie, spot-on seafood preparations — updated seasonally and spiced globally. The beverage-savvy face of the restaurant, Michelle Peake Shriver, marries her wine knowledge with a creative cocktail program. Periwinkle walls, custom woodwork and fresh-faced tin ceilings in the dining room convey the trio’s low-key approach without dampening the fire in their bellies.
Lehja makes a believer out of both novices and lovers of Indian cuisine. Take a chance on the daily chaat, a scrumptious traditional street food dish combining crunch (often fried chickpeas), spices and a bit of sweetness; every day is different and the wait staff is happy to enlighten. For a more classic approach, order Chicken Tikka Masala, hot or mild; the creamy tomato and fenugreek sauce is addictive. Add garlic naan to the mix and the entire table swoons. Contemporary vegetarian and lamb dishes also please. Don’t forget the outstanding wine list that has garnered accolades from Wine Spectator magazine and imbibers alike.
23320 E. Grace St., Richmond, Virginia 23219
Rappahannock River Oysters founda place in the menus and hearts of local chefs some time ago, but it wasn’t until late 2012 that RRO’s owners, cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton, graced us with Rappahannock, their first full-fledged, Richmond-area restaurant. Since then, this rustically upscale eatery has joined Pasture in turning downtown’s East Grace Street into a nationally recognized restaurant row. In addition to serving RRO’s signature bivalves, chef Dylan Fultineer — formerly of Chicago’s Blackbird — crafts seasonal, often locally sourced, entrées, such as Border Springs lamb neck, wood-grilled Virginia scallops and, my favorite, rockfish and Barcatoyster bourride.
A reliable choice for 16 years, Acacia Mid-town showcases the burgeoning food scene in Richmond with understated elegance and a commitment to sustainable practices and community partners that has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with integrity. The modern décor is sleek, yet approachable, allowing the focus to remain on the Southern-inspired food. The seasonal menu might include perennial favorites like delicate fried oysters with crunchy coleslaw, or the pan-roasted local rockfish served with just the right amount of apple-port sauce, pumpkin purée and Brussels sprouts so tasty you’ll become a convert.
(UPDATE: NOW CLOSED)
If you’ve never had a dim sum brunch, you’re missing out. Little purses of dough are steamed or fried, and stuffed with a variety of familiar and unfamiliar ingredients and tastes. Sure, some dim sum places leave you suspicious that it all came out of a frozen bag; not so at House of Síchuan (the new name for Queen's Dim Sum), where the steaming carts offer you a beautifully fresh array of dumplings and buns that are not over-processed gray lumps. Don’t limit yourself, though, to simply partaking of the scallop-and-shrimp dumplingsat brunch; I’ve heard tell that their XO noodles —rice noodles seared till crispy in a salty/spicy seafood sauce — are outstanding, and they’ll be on my tablefor the next visit.