These days, when everyone's pinching their pennies, there's nothing more frustrating than suffering through a bad meal on those occasions when you do venture out to eat. Every month, our critics try to steer you toward establishments that deliver the goods, but the eateries they picked for this year's Best New Restaurants feature are a cut above. In coming up with our magnificent seven, they considered restaurants across the Richmond region that opened for dinner service in 2008. As for those tight budgets we mentioned earlier, you might be surprised at how many restaurants are ready to meet you halfway, with incentives ranging from Verbena's Sunday date nights, which include salad or soup, a main course, and a dessert for $35 per person, to Acacia Mid-town's three-course prix-fixe menu for $23 per person, served all night Monday through Thursday and from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. That kind of gastronomic stimulus will always get our vote.
2601 W. Cary St., 562-0138; Opened: December 2008; Owners: Aline and Chef Dale Reitzer
Very rarely do you feel transported while dining in Richmond. Acacia Mid-town hits that happy balance of a nod to the past and a comfortable familiarity while making you feel, even for a couple of hours, that you're dining in a much, much larger town. Husband-and-wife team Aline and Dale Reitzer took a long time looking for just the right space to house this new version of their beloved Carytown restaurant. And surely we're not the only ones who did the math and noticed that it was almost exactly 10 years ago that Dale Reitzer appeared on the front cover of Food & Wine as one of the country's top up-and-coming new culinary talents. He was great a decade ago; now see what Reitzer has up his sleeve in the prime of his career. He has always made one of the best crab cakes in town, and you'll find it on Acacia's menu twice. The appetizer portion, with purple pickled cabbage slaw, a curry rémoulade, pure lump crabmeat and no filler, was outstanding. Aspects of the menu evoked the restaurant's previous incarnation: Sautéed rockfish with applewood-smoked bacon and a red-wine onion marmalade, as well as seared scallops with homemade gnocchi and Parmesan sauce, were as welcome as an old neighbor. Desserts are made in-house and are as well-conceived and executed as the rest of the menu. The quark cheesecake, a fluffier, tangier version of the dessert standard, was as enjoyable to look at as it was to taste, its pale pink top instantly separating it from the beige wedges served elsewhere. Acacia Mid-town's sleek and modern atmosphere — with walls the color of hot chocolate and extras like upholstered armchairs in the front windows, valet parking, a glass-enclosed wine cellar and a curtained-off private dining area — completes the recipe that makes this a very grown-up restaurant.
2526 Floyd Ave., 359-3122; Opened: February 2008; Owners: David Bess and Chef Todd Richardson
There are neighborhood restaurants in the Fan, there are bars with good food in the Fan and then there is Verbena. The atmosphere is beautiful — sophisticated and timeless, with lots of glorious natural light and an attention to detail that even jaded diners will appreciate. This classy revamp of a familiar space boasts a copper-colored ceiling; luxurious dark-wood booths and seating; crisp white tablecloths; an upstairs lounge offering small plates and an impressive cheese menu; and a seasoned wait staff that does a fine job of navigating the inspired menu. A seared duck breast with warm sweet-potato salad and grilled baby bok choy and apricot-glazed pheasant served on a bed of risotto with peas are just two examples of the enthusiastic entrée offerings. Another main course, the delicious phyllo-wrapped salmon, is an architectural marvel — salmon layered with an herbed filling of goat cheese and oyster mushrooms, wrapped in phyllo, sliced in two, and vertically stacked in the middle of a roasted-red-pepper coulis — like a house you simply have to enter in order to experience its interior. A colorful appetizer of curried shrimp, served on a bed of tabbouleh along with pappadam, pickled mango and a yogurt sauce, presented a perfect combination of hot and cold flavors. In a less accomplished kitchen, these exotic combinations might turn out to be just plain weird, but at Verbena they are dazzling, offering an enjoyable roller-coaster ride of taste sensations.
Stronghill Dining Company
1200 N. Boulevard, 359-0202; Opened: October 2008; Chef: Owen Lane; Owners: Jessika and Rob Weaver
The owners of Stronghill Dining Company know all about leaving an indelible mark, whether it's on a dining experience or an arm, as they also own River City Tattoo across the street. The dining room is dominated by a huge chandelier and two very large mirrors, all echoing the warm wooden booths and giving the restaurant an air of casual opulence.
Kudos to Chef Owen Lane for an equally interesting menu. Even the ubi-quitous breadbasket held a surprise of moist, not overly sweet banana bread. There is a decidedly Southern influence of barbecue, deviled eggs and green tomatoes, along with some unusual items, such as frog's legs, venison medallions and wild boar. The seared scallops are very worthy — crispy golden on the outside and tender and sweet on the inside. Other standouts include the Stronghill Stew — a flavorful mélange of shrimp, andouille sausage, mussels, tomatoes and okra — and the juicy seared rib-eye served with grilled asparagus and hushpuppies.
Stronghill has a good wine list, including some selections that are usually only served by the bottle, such as MacMurray Pinot Noir and Layer Cake Primitivo. And Stronghill is a place you can pop into for a late-night drink and linger, whether at the bar or the lounge area at the rear of the restaurant. This area of the North Side may soon be the place to go for a night out. Dinner and a movie won't seem like just another humdrum evening with the newly opened, state-of-the art Movieland on one side of the Boulevard and a smart restaurant like Stronghill on the other.
414 E. Main St., 225-8811; Opened: November 2007, but dinner menu added January 2008; Owners: Co-Chef Sam George, Co-Chef Andy Howell and Michelle Turner
The menu explains this restaurant's concept with a simple tag line — European Comfort Food. It's all about great ingredients (many sourced locally), down-to-earth cooking and reasonable prices. Thankfully, there is no TV or smoking allowed. The décor is modest and relaxed: Booths are made from salvaged doors, and almost half the seating is at the bar, which runs practically the full length of the intimate space. Several classic German dishes make appearances, with Schweineschnitzel, a huge pan-fried breaded pork cutlet, being moist, flavorful and downright delicious. Finished with the right amount of lemon and capers to counter the richness and paired with parslied spaetzle made on-site, the dish was an unexpected treat, especially for only $14. Offerings are both humble and fabulous in their simple reliance on ingredients and technique — a sizzling, small cast-iron skillet loaded with spicy fresh country-style rope sausage, fried eggs, and sautéed potatoes and onions was hearty and delicious. Be sure to try our fave, the griddled Mediterranean Shortstack. This divine upscale salad came with two shrimp and scallop-and-crabmeat cakes that managed to be both light and all about the seafood. A bit of panko kept the seafood cakes delicate and crisp on the outside. Café Rustica consistently offers wonderful food at a reasonable price, with enough saucy service to keep you on your toes.
3433 W. Cary St., 353-2186; Opened: August 2008; Owners: Chef Todd Johnson, Randy O'Dell and
Mezzanine is actually smaller than it seems, but that's because of its attractive two-story entrance and the enormous front-and-center chalkboard that houses the ever-changing, seasonal menu. Once upon a time the space was an art gallery, then it became a coffee shop. Now, Mezzanine is Carytown's most exciting new dining destination. With ice-blue walls, a fine collection of original art, hardwood floors and a helpful staff, the look and vibe of the place is spot-on. The food focuses on local and mostly organic ingredients in dishes like fried green tomatoes with Chesapeake crab, an Angus rib-eye with lobster crushed potatoes, and a simple, perfectly roasted free-range chicken with fresh rosemary and goat cheese tucked underneath the crispy golden skin. Even something as straightforward as a house salad of local greens gets elevated by the subtle delights of its dressing, a pickled-okra-and-honey vinaigrette. Two standout dishes are the shrimp and grits, featuring tasso ham, grits from Ashland's own Byrd Mill, a generous helping of perfectly cooked shrimp and a Parmesan cream sauce poured on top, and the Thai green curry — made using fresh green chilies — with shredded chicken, Japanese eggplant and oyster mushrooms served with jasmine rice. Portions are relatively modest, but the preponderance of appetizers and small plates, as well as reasonable prices (especially considering the quality ingredients), means sampling is a must. Once the weather gets a little better, the Cary Street-facing patio will offer yet another reason to visit this welcome addition to Richmond's culinary lineup.
4401 W. Broad St., 359-5590; Opened: January 2008; Chef: William Harik; Owner: Naji Kadi
Authentic establishments can be every bit as impressive as their super-fancy or cutting-edge counterparts: a point apparently not lost on the good folks at The Phoenician. While the plain-ish exterior of their Broad Street digs won't necessarily beckon, the friendly service and adept treatment of classic Lebanese dishes will. And once you step inside the restaurant, the exotic allure of decorative fabrics, urns and grape clusters, rich gold and deep-red interior hues, and native background music completes the recipe for a unique and satisfying experience.
Not to be skipped are the simple yet delicious starters that kick things off. Lebni — tangy yogurt drizzled with fruity olive oil, sprinkled with mint and served with a mess of pita chips — is easy to get carried away over. Equally addictive are the briny olives.
With numerous starters, including the likes of falafel, kebbe and hummus, the classics are well covered. Fatayer spinach — baked pastries stuffed with a fragrant medley of spinach, onion and pine nuts — also fall into that category and come recommended.
Kebabs, not surprisingly, rule the entrées, and the shrimp version with peppers and onions is certainly a winner. Not only is the flavor-enhancing sear on the kebabs terrific, there's also the fluffy, almond-studded rice pilaf and the mess of garlicky, tomato-slathered green beans to consider. Best yet, though, the kitchen thoughtfully de-constructs the skewers for easier consumption.
The Phoenician's friendly service, its authentic cuisine and the restaurant's transporting atmosphere all combine to create a tasty, otherworldly package that's a definite standout.
The Black Sheep
901 W. Marshall St., 648-1300; Opened: April 2008; Owners: Amy Hess and Chef Kevin Roberts
Adjacent to VCU in the Carver neighborhood, this diminutive gem counters its small space with big-time comfort and value. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are offered (though they don't open until 9 a.m.), so opportunities abound to enjoy the laid-back, hospitable service and delicious, down-to-earth Southern-inspired offerings. That is, if you manage to beat the hungry crowds. Despite the menus' collective brevity, choosing between their enticing selections can prove challenging. A breakfast-goer, for example, might long deliberate between one of the uniquely varied frittatas and, say, sausage gravy and biscuits. For one editor here, however, it should be noted that handling such a dilemma is quite simple — always go with their "real deal" biscuits. Soups and salads, similarly, flash appeal for lunch but could easily be trumped by one of the gargantuan sandwiches (aptly referred to as battleships instead of subs).
Dinner poses similar challenges, but not to worry: One seemingly can't go wrong. Down-home chicken and dumplings pairs tender chicken morsels and substantial, bread-like dumplings with a smothering of creamy chicken-sauce goodness. Fish tacos sport generous grilled mahi, a trio of shells, and messes of rice, black beans, guacamole, sour cream and pineapple salsa. Homemade ravioli delivers, too, when stuffed with Swiss chard and ricotta and slathered with both tangy tomato sauce and a white-bean-eggplant purée. Sides are Southern all the way, including bread-and-butter pickled vegetables and deviled eggs. Rich corn pudding — studded with sweet whole corn — serves well as dessert if you can't save room for the pineapple upside-down cake or peanut-butter pie.
When it comes to picking our best new restaurants, we're pretty insistent on getting table service. But a few counter-service establishments tickled our taste buds this year, leading to the inclusion of the following trio of honorable mentions.
2077 Wal-Mart Way, 897-9007
Veteran chef, caterer and barbecue aficionado Tuffy Stone is at it again, and the results are terrific. Visitors here are treated to an open, modern space; hunger-inducing hickory aromas aplenty; and, of course, gobs of fall-off-the-bone-tender barbecue. (We're particularly fond of the beef brisket.) Crisp, lightly dressed coleslaw, as all good versions do, plays the perfect foil. —Martin Gravely
201 W. Seventh St., 527-2867
Full of flavor, Savor is fun and the food is terrific. The café's owner, Ellie Basch, has a long history as a caterer, giving her a deft eye for presentation and a good feel for what people want. Enjoy freshly baked goods, panini, salads and homemade soups Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch, or swing by on Wednesday evenings for happy hour. —Susan Early
Sticks Kebob Shop
1700 Willow Lawn Drive, No. 115, 282-7010
A relative newcomer grafted from a pair of Charlottesville parent locations, Sticks features an array of savory, globally inspired kebobs (with accompanying sauces). Choices range from pork loin with African spices to lemon-garlic shrimp. Baklava lovers should dive into Sticks' deliciously sticky version. Sweet, chewy and loaded with dense nut and golden phyllo layers, it rivals pricier versions sampled elsewhere.