The Carytown Restaurant Committee, left to right: Todd Gelsomino of Weezie’s Kitchen, Raul Cantu of Nacho Mama’s, Matt Brehony of Secco, Paige Bishop of Elwood Thompson’s Local Market, Todd Johnson of Mezzanine and Paul Heitz of Amour Wine Bistro. Photo by Ash Daniel.
Over the years, Carytown has come into its own as a restaurant destination. Along one strip of street, you'll find Thai food, sushi, Italian, new American, French, Indian, Greek, Mexican and more. This past March, area restaurant owners officially came together and formed the Carytown Restaurant Committee to promote the district's many dining establishments.
"We've never emphasized the restaurants in Carytown," says committee head Raul Cantu, owner of Nacho Mama's. "We're not really competing with each other; we want to be a big family and spread our customers."
One of the group's biggest initiatives will be A Taste of Carytown, taking place the first week of August and leading up to the Carytown Watermelon Festival on Sunday, Aug. 7. The event will raise funds for the Richmond Public Schools Education Foundation. Some restaurants will offer prix-fixe menus for around $25 and will donate 10 percent to the foundation, and some of the more casual restaurants will offer special menus and donate a portion of their sales. "That way anyone can afford to eat and give back," Cantu says. The group is also planning to upgrade the Carytown Food and Wine Festival, which will be held this year on Oct. 9, with more vendors and an upscale feel.
Just as Carytown's restaurants serve a range of cuisines, the owners represent a variety of backgrounds. In the next few pages, we profile a few of the personalities behind the shopping district's dining scene
Susan Doyle: Launching a new career
When Susan Doyle (below left) was laid off from her job at an ad agency a few years ago, she and her sister, Anne Stewart (below right), decided to view it as an opportunity. They'd both worked in the restaurant industry and had talked about opening their own place for years. "We decided, if we could find the space, we'd give it a go," Doyle says.
They bought the former Track restaurant and opened Bonvenu (2915 W. Cary St., 342-1003 or bonvenu.com) about 18 months ago. Before opening, they gutted and remodeled the inside of the restaurant. "We wanted something clean, contemporary, welcoming and intimate," Doyle says, noting that she and her sister designed the interior themselves. The name Bonvenu comes from the invented language Esperanto and means "welcome." The sisters chose it because they felt it encompassed everyone.
They hired chef Chaz Robinson, who most recently served as head chef at Rivers Ridge and previously co-owned a restaurant in Denver. Doyle and Stewart worked with him to create their modern American menu. Popular dishes include ratatouille-stuffed poblano peppers served over fire-roasted tomato sauce and drizzled with Mornay sauce, and spring-vegetable paella made with roasted zucchini and yellow squash, snap peas; and olives in a rich tomato concassé with saffron rice.
Applying her marketing background to the restaurant, Doyle has tried to promote the neighborhood, with special offers like a 10 percent discount for people who live or work in Carytown. The owners also support local musicians by hosting live music nights.
While Stewart retains her day job at a travel-insurance company, Doyle is at Bonvenu every day, running the front of the house. "I believe in good food, good service and good ambiance. ... We try to create that trifecta daily."
Michael Pace: Living his dream
As he worked throughout the food industry, from bartending, to the dietary department at Henrico Doctors' Hospital, Michael Pace couldn't get owning a restaurant out of his head. He was even set to become a nurse anesthetist when he realized he just couldn't abandon his dream.
One day, Pace was walking through Carytown with a friend who was a real-estate agent, and he saw his current space for sale. It had been Galaxy Diner before a new owner made it into the more upscale, failed venture Galaxy Bistro. Pace mentioned his interest in the spot to his friend and, "before you knew it, I'd bought the building and property." He re-opened Galaxy Diner (3109 W. Cary St., 213-0510) in 2002 with an updated interior, including space-age-inspired silver paneling and a reconfigured seating section, waiting stations and kitchen.
In creating the new menu, Pace pulled some dishes from the old Galaxy Diner, and added some items. He says Galaxy is known for the fried Oreos, Twinkies and pickles he added to the menu, plus the Trailer Park Pancakes — French toast stuffed with bananas and peanut butter — and the milkshakes, which have always been a Galaxy Diner staple.
Galaxy was also one of the first restaurants in Richmond to sell Pabst Blue Ribbon, and it has sold the most PBR of any eatery in Richmond for the past eight years, according to the beer's distributor. The cost for a PBR draft used to be $1.25 all day, but Pace recently was forced to raise the price to $1.50 as his costs rose.
Galaxy is Pace's ideal restaurant: "I love my clientele, I love VCU, I love tattoos and piercings," he says. "My customers are entertaining, and they're just nice, laid-back people." He's also happy with his close-knit staff of 26, noting that he hasn't had to hire in more than a year, a rarity in the restaurant industry. You'll find him at the restaurant working alongside his staff. He usually works the floor or bar, but he's in the kitchen on Mondays.
Xtra Moore: Building a neighborhood establishment
Having worked in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, Xtra Moore (above right) says she always dreamed of opening her own restaurant, but she didn't expect it to happen anytime soon. After graduating from the University of Virginia, she was still working in restaurants when her parents suggested remodeling their Carytown building — her mother owns Bangles & Beads, and her father owns the building in which it's located — and putting a restaurant for their daughter on the top floor.
Two years later, Xtra's Café (3322-B W. Cary St., 355-0446 or xtrascafe.com) opened on Sept. 17, 2010. Moore collaborated with Johannas Design Group and Helen Reed Hayes to create the sleek space with a long bar and small patio.
Moore always had jobs as a waitress, bartender or hostess, but she now works the front of the house. She hired a chef to create the menu. "I wanted it to stay pretty casual, but interesting at the same time," Moore says. "I wanted to stay away from being too upscale, since my background is in casual restaurants." Her original chef has since moved on, but her new chef, Cleveland Brown, makes all the soups and desserts from scratch.
Moore wanted Xtra's to be a place where people could enjoy themselves in a comfortable environment. Nightly specials, like $10 champagne bottles on Wednesdays, boost the fun factor.
When it comes to why she loves the restaurant business, Moore says it's all about service. "I'm a big people pleaser," she says. "We'll remember the drink they ordered last time, or what kind of food they like, or their name. I want to provide a place where people can feel appreciated."
Tom Roukous: Staying fresh and steady
Tom Roukous' grandfather owned a grocery store and deli in Meadville, Pa., where Roukous loved going as a child, so when he heard that Coppola's Deli (2900 W. Cary St., 359-6969 or coppolasdeli.com) was for sale about 21 years ago, his ears perked up. He had some experience as a restaurant cook and thought it sounded interesting. "I said, ‘Wouldn't that be neat?' and decided to give it a go," he says.
Over the years, he's kept the menu primarily the same, with a few additions: "If an employee comes in and has an idea, I let them try it as a special," Roukous says. "If it catches on, it makes its way onto the menu."
No matter the selection, Roukous focuses on freshness and consistency. Bread is delivered daily; the potato salad, pesto and antipasto salad are homemade. Even the cheese is freshly grated.
The menu includes standards, like the popular Industrial, a traditional Italian sub, and the Cheese Colombo, a creation made by placing New York cheddar, Swiss, provolone, onions, and hot and sweet peppers directly on the sandwich grill, then topping them with lettuce, tomatoes, oil and vinegar.
Roukous also notes that Coppola's sells homemade pasta dishes at dinner like eggplant Parmesan and lasagna with affordably priced bottles of wine. "The sandwiches are just so popular, the pasta gets overshadowed," he says. He also carries a small selection of grocery items like olive oil, pizzelles and wine to go.
Coppola's popularity has grown so much that he opened a second Coppola's location downtown with former Carytown staffer Rob Cherry. People travel from out of state to try his sandwiches and stop him on the street to share favorites. "People come in and they know something's different here," he says.
Carlo Gaione: Holding down the fort
After studying hotel management in Italy, Carlo Gaione, at 22, wanted to see the world. He came to the United States in 1981. Working the front of the house in fine-dining restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Tampa, Fla., before moving to Richmond. Upon his arrival, he noticed a lack of restaurants in Richmond (at least compared to Washington) and saw an opportunity. He called his friend, Antonio Capece, who'd been wanting to open a restaurant, and suggested they do it here.
Not long after, the two purchased La Maisonette, a Carytown restaurant that was for sale, and reopened as Amici (3343 W. Cary St., 353-4700 or amiciristorante.net) in October 1991 with Gaione serving as manager and Capece as head chef. Their focus was Northern Italian cuisine. Twenty years in, Capece spends more time at his second restaurant, La Grotta, while Gaione runs the day-to-day business at Amici. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs, but we've stayed strong," Gaione says, attributing Amici's longevity to "consistency, freshness, good customer
service and friendliness."
Over the years, he's remodeled the space and enclosed the patio to make room for more diners year-round. He's continued to serve traditional Piedmontese cuisine, such as the popular agnolotti alla panna (homemade ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta in a light cream sauce) and anatra all' amarena (roasted duck breast with a black-cherry balsamic reduction). Gaione says Amici's philosophy is "the less you manipulate the food, the more the original flavor comes out." So while some people cook a tomato sauce for hours, at Amici it's cooked for about 30 minutes, drawing out the fresh tomato flavor. Most dishes on Amici's seasonal menu are homemade, often using local ingredients, and a few remaining menu items are imported from Italy.
Chris and Abby Barras: Creating a community fixture
When Chris and Abby Barras moved to Richmond and started a church, Area 10 Faith Community, at The Byrd Theatre in September 2008, they needed a spot for children's ministries while they hosted services. After finding a space just a few doors down from the theater, they decided to open a business in it as well.
"We wanted to make something useful to the community," Chris says.
At the time, their children were ages 1, 3 and 5, and Abby suggested a spot where parents and kids could spend time comfortably no matter the weather. "Your kids like being there, but you like being there, too," she says.
Chris had managed a Starbucks for two years, and they both loved the coffee-shop atmosphere but felt most cafés weren't very inviting to patrons with children in tow. So they decided to open a combination coffee shop and children's play space.
About two and a half years ago, Cartwheels & Coffee (2820 W. Cary St., 355-5437 or cartwheelsandcoffee.com) opened with an indoor play area featuring slides, tunnels, an infant area and a reading area. There is also free WiFi and a full-service coffee shop, complete with an array of snacks from local bakery Morsels — sweet treats with healthy ingredients sneaked in. (Picture a brownie with blueberry-spinach purée.)
Cartwheels & Coffee hosts kids' birthday parties that are known for their flexibility. "If someone wants a Dora/pirates/baseball party, we can make it happen," Chris says. There is also story time and periodic classes.
Abby says the goal behind Cartwheels & Coffee is to foster a sense of community. "We really wanted to create a place where people could meet their neighbors," she says. "Parenting can be hard work, and we wanted a place where parents could meet other parents and chat."