Photo by Stephanie Breijo
Executive Chef Michael Crowley, left, and General Manager Bobby Kruger, right, will open Belle & James on Oct. 9.
[Update: Due to permit delays, Belle & James will not open on Oct. 9, but will open by Oct. 31.]
On Oct. 9, downtown is getting a new taste of the river. Belle & James, the French-American restaurant named for the city’s iconic Belle Isle and James River, is finally opening its doors at 700 E. Main St.
Perhaps you sampled Executive Chef Michael Crowley’s cuisine at the restaurant’s Cask Café or Curry Craft pop-ups over the summer. Perhaps you sipped a few of General Manager (and Richmond craft cocktail pioneer) Bobby Kruger’s drinks at the Belle & James and Osaka collaborative event. Perhaps you attended the restaurant’s pig roast preview at Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery. Whatever the case, Belle & James and its series of pop-ups throughout July have done more than build anticipation: They’ve built the cornerstone of the restaurant’s focus on community.
“It’s even a big part of the name, of Belle Isle and the James River,” says Kruger. “There are tons of great restaurants here and I love most of them. And we want to jump in and just be a part of that community: the restaurant community, the Richmond community, the producers. It’s just a really agricultural state and there’s lots of really great stuff happening here.”
You’ll see community reflected in a number of ways at the new restaurant. Many of its purveyors will of course be local: Flour Garden baguettes and brioche rolls will sandwich items like porchetta with balsamic onions, roasted red peppers and Dijonnaise, or accompany the sautéed mussels in a broth made with local herbs and Lickinghole Creek’s Three Chopt Tripal; Rudy’s Exotic Mushrooms and Produce will supply the mushrooms for the wild mushroom crepes with butternut squash and coconut coulis. Its beer program — 80 percent of it, anyway — will come from Lickinghole Creek, and the brewery itself will have a say in determining which taps run with which brews, to best suit the season and the menu.
In November, Belle & James will launch its monthly “Fundustry” concept: a weekly industry night where a rotating cast of 15 to 20 Richmond beverage pros will guest bartend, a different guest each week. The specialty cocktail and 10 percent of all bar sales every Tuesday will benefit a different nonprofit every month, the first beneficiary being the Virginia Conservation Network.
“My job is essentially to create two positive spheres: for the customer and for our employees where we’re encouraging culture, we’re encouraging positivity, and people moving forward towards our goals, and living responsibly. That comes into the products, it comes into the culture of our partners as well,” Kruger says, adding, “We’re trying to find partners that mirror what we’re trying to do but also inspire us to do great things, too.”
Responsible living is such a large part of the Belle & James ethos that Kruger and Crowley have been visiting prospective local partners and their farms to be sure that all animals are raised humanely, and that agriculture is organically grown, when possible. While the chocolate used in the restaurant’s vegan, practically raw chocolate mousse dessert is not local, it is fair trade, as is the coffee.
And because one of Kruger’s passions is craft cocktails entirely made with in-house mixers and shrubs, it should come as no surprise that the list of around 30 cocktails will involve local ingredients as well. Expect a menu focused on cocktails that are unique to the restaurant, as opposed to a menu full of the classics, using seasonal, house-made mixers such as a plum and blackberry shrub made from locally grown berries from Agriberry Farm. “We try to have a lot of fun with stuff that’s very unique to us,” he shares. “A big part of it is feeling connected to the ingredients and feeling like you’ve created something.”
While the cocktail menu will rotate seasonally, the restaurant’s signature Belle Cocktail (gin with fresh lemon, lavender syrup and Prosecco — a spin on the French 75) and the James Cocktail (whiskey with fresh lime, rosemary syrup and mole bitters — Kruger’s nod to the Whiskey Sour), will always appear on the menu. You’ll also find a French-skewed, fairly biodynamic wine list curated by the restaurant’s sommelier and assistant manager, Sean Rapoza, formerly of Balliceaux. (Rapoza also recently created the cocktail program at Shoryuken Ramen.) Expect roughly 30 to 40 labels, with a focus on independent, lesser-known producers, and around 10 to 12 wines by the glass. Bonus: The restaurant will employ the Coravin Wine System, which oxidizes wine more slowly than corking the bottle, allowing for more expensive and natural wines to be available by the glass.
The restaurant’s menus include sharable plates (priced from $6 to $15), sandwiches ($11 to $12), salads ($10 to $12) and entrées ($13 to $26). At lunch, dinner, happy hour and on the late-night menu, you’ll find a range of French-American fare. Expect a poulet melt with chicken confit on toasted baguette with melted cheese curds, sautéed mushrooms and maple-chicken jus; pimento-cheese-stuffed beignets; salmon crudo with herbs de Provence, salmon roe, apple-fennel salad, and mustard beurre blanc; and of course the requisite steak frites, served with dressed greens, baguette and béchamel. The menu will also offer a few options for vegetarians and at least one option for vegans in every section of the menu.
Crowley is most recently of Max’s On Broad, though he also spent time in the kitchens of The Jefferson’s Lemaire and TJs Restaurant. “I guess I hope people come in and really feel the passion behind the food,” he says, “and can come in to not only a gorgeous establishment but also get something they’ve never had before.”
That gorgeous establishment will seat 48 in the dining room, 16 at the 32-foot bar, and 20 on the patio, and is located on the ground floor of a building that will house not only two hotels, but also two additional forthcoming food and beverage concepts from the Belle & James team. This restaurant’s theme is split into “Belle” and “James,” with the dining room decorated with more feminine accents (such as pendant lights hung at various heights to invoke a starry sky), and the bar designed with more masculine touches in mind (think: honey onyx stone with dark wood and leather). The restaurant will offer lunch and dinner, with brunch and its late-night menu launching around five to six weeks after its opening. Though it will close on Sundays, the team hopes to host its own monthly Sunday pop-ups and events like pig roasts and shrimp boils.
Belle & James opens on Friday, Oct. 9, at 700 E. Main St. Hours: 11 a.m., Monday through Saturday, with a dinner menu available until at least 10:30 p.m.