Editor's note: In our January 2013 issue, reporter Chris Dovi explores whether Richmond has reached true "food town" status. For some historical perspective, here's a 1999 column on the topic written by celebrity chef/restaurateur Jimmy Sneed, who was also interviewed for the current article.
Ever heard of a restaurant called the Open Door? Hmm. How about Chateau Rouge? No? OK, try this one, La Bouffe? Ah, you remember that one. Well, all three restaurants occupied the space on Cary Street before us, La Bouffe being the first, way back in 1991. So much has indeed changed in a short time.
"Don't open an upscale restaurant in Richmond."
"Don't locate downtown."
"Don't call it The Frog and the Redneck."
The Frog and the Redneck opened at 1423 E. Cary St. on April 15, 1993, just over six years ago. We were, at the time, the only kid on the block. Now there's the Hard Shell, Europa and Carnivore's, side by side. And more new restaurants up the street. Not that we're the pioneers. How long has Sam Miller's been around? And Jerry Cable was not only a true visionary of Shockoe Slip restaurants, but opened the Tobacco Company in the mid-1970s when such restaurants were cutting edge, even in larger cities. Now there's a success story.
Few among those who go to restaurants realize that the man who first opened one must have been a man of genius and a profound observer. — Brillat-Savarin
So what does the future hold? Can there be too many restaurants downtown? And what about the Bottom? Rents there are creeping up as more apartments get built and confidence grows that the foodwall will protect investments. Tobacco Row is destined to become a village and Church Hill continues to gentrify.
Of soup and love, the first is best. — Spanish proverb
And the canal. Catalyst or boondoggle? Is it a 2-foot-deep ditch to nowhere or the cornerstone for massive new development? With the expansion of the Richmond Centre and the accompanying hotels, we can only hope and expect that retail will follow. Bingo. Downtown residential with retail and a booming convention business can only mean great things are in store for the restaurant community. What we're talking about takes time, and momentum. And the support of the community.
He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise. — Thoreau
But the question remains: Will Richmond ever be a "restaurant town"? Will "dining out" overcome "eating out"? Can Richmond join Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Charleston as a city where deciding where to dine becomes a pastime, a passion? Some say it's happened already, some say it'll never happen. In order for restaurants to serve great food, offer a serious wine list and provide service with professional waitstaff, the dining public has to be both knowledgeable and appreciative. The size of that group of diners determines the number of good restaurants.
A true gastronome should always be ready to eat, just as a soldier should always be ready to fight. — Charles Monselet
So how does Richmond become that passionate dining community? It's happening already, with the opening of new restaurants. And, with people moving here who have been exposed to the restaurant communities of other cities, demand is growing. You may be surprised to know that there is already a community of good ethnic restaurants: Jamaican, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Mexican and authentic Chinese, to name but a few.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all. — Harriet Van Horne
There's a larger issue to discuss. How many times have you heard, or used, the phrase "This is Richmond" to answer a vast array of questions? Frankly, I'm tired of hearing it. It's as if they're offering a self-fulfilling prophecy as to why Richmond won't ever change. Yet Richmond is changing, as all cities do. Who would have thought that a downtown restaurant with the unlikely name of The Frog and the Redneck would be serving a thousand diners a week? Not that it's always easy. A dramatic example of prevailing thought: A recent issue of Washington's Capital Style magazine quotes a food critic's remarks on Citronelle restaurant. After spending $365 on a dinner for two, the critic says "Citronelle gives good value." Yikes! The other extreme? An article the same week in Richmond's Style Weekly, commenting on the demise of a local eatery, referred to it as "the pricey Granite on Grove, where dinner for two often exceeded $60." OK, so maybe Richmond isn't quite there yet.
A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch.— James Beard
But we are well on the way. In addition to new restaurants, and improved older ones, there is a growing extended "foodie" family of gourmet shops, wine shops, cookware stores, the "international aisle" of the local grocery store and an ever-growing, enthusiastic dining public. When I say family it's because we all have the same goal: the extreme enjoyment of dining, of discovering new restaurants, new dishes, new ingredients, new flavors.
The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star. — Brillat-Savarin
Missing from this formula are more knowledgeable, passionate food writers. There was one, Michael Robinson, who had the passion, but he moved on years ago. And there are one or two here who clearly love good food and care about the industry. It's the role of food writers and critics to help us make such discoveries, and revel in them. Imagine my dismay when one of the more prominent local critics told me, "I have to write down to the level of my readers. It's not my job to educate them." (Just shoot me now.)
Like most fine cooks, M. Bouillon flew into rages and wept easily. — A.J. Liebling
So there it is. Is Richmond on the cusp of a true renaissance, about to become the envy of midsize cities everywhere? The answer is a resounding … maybe. But I'll bet you dinner it's going to happen.
Just six months after Chef Jimmy Sneed and his partner, Adam Steely, opened The Frog and the Redneck, Esquire magazine named it one of the best new restaurants in America. They describe their food as modern regional American.