Photo by Stephanie Breijo
[8/27 Update: Castanea is now open, serving lunch and takeout. Denny hopes to begin dinner service next week.]
For Castanea, it started with a seed. This seed sprouted into the world-renowned American chestnut tree, native to the East Coast, until the chestnut blight of the early 20th century nearly wiped out the plant family. Over 100 years later, this history planted new seeds in the mind of Richmond chef Philip Denny: Castanea, the restaurant he'd been conceptualizing for much of his career, would be named for the American chestnut tree's history and applauded fruit — reputed to be the best in the world. Though the tree's near extinction prohibits American chestnuts from making their way onto your plate next month, you'll still find traces of chestnut throughout the menu; a chestnut-flour pasta here, a chestnut liquor there. That's not to say that the new Shockoe Bottom restaurant, market and gelateria will be gimicky. In fact, it seems far from it.
When Denny opens the doors at 1814 E. Main St. — he hopes — on July 15 for lunch and takeout (with dinner service beginning July 21), his focus will not be the chestnut. When I ask if Castanea will indeed serve Mediterranean food as previously reported, he shies away from that categorization as well.
"That’s such a blanket term I’m not so sure I even like," Denny says. "It’s more about that I want to make the food that I love to make, and I love Moroccan food, I love Tunisian food, I love Greek food, I love Italian food, and French food and Spanish food and Portuguese food. If there's a dish from one of those countries that I'm pumped to make, we’re going to put it on the menu and try and make it the best we can and hopefully people love it.”
Untethered to umbrella terms and chestnut themes, Castanea actually stems from Denny's travels, international inspiration and whatever he's currently passionate about in the kitchen; a concept with such large wingspan that it could potentially become murky or overwhelming, but it's less a concept and more Denny's dream restaurant, tailored to his numerous strengths in the kitchen. It's precisely what he wanted: an outlet all his own, with a menu based on his wide variety of cooking experience and interests.
“Every chef probably dreams of this. I mean, [I've been wanting this] for as long as I’ve been chefing for sure, and even as a line cook I suppose, but I don’t think as a line cook I would have been ready for it. I don’t know, maybe I’m not ready for it now," he laughs. "Now seems as good a time as any. I just had to make it happen, you know?”
It's a concept in three parts. A 32-seat dining room will house a menu of appetizers, tapas, entrees and desserts, with appetizers ranging from around $6 to $8 and many entrees available between $13 and $16. The main dining room is also home to a 28-seat bar, with a program more focused on beer and fortified wines like sherries and ports than it is on craft cocktails (though you'll find a handful of those, too). The market, to the side of the restaurant, will offer takeout options, boxed lunches and a deli counter with sandwiches, charcuterie, and marinated salads inspired by those Denny found in Spain. You'll also find the restaurant's house-made gelato in the market, available by the scoop or by the pint with 12 flavors to start, though the chef-owner says he'd ideally offer up to 24 in the future.
The last branch of Castanea extends to the large patio, where Denny will host one brunch per month, more an event than a meal. Expect outdoor paella, whole-roasted pig and live music. You can get a taste of what's to come on July 26, when Classical Revolution RVA will be performing on the patio. While this first event might not be to the scale of Denny’s planned monthly brunches, there will be food and music. Eventually, he says, he'd also like to plant a patio garden with raised beds there.
Denny's time in the kitchen at revered and well-remembered restaurants like Aziza's on Main and Six Burner cemented his reputation as a skilled chef, and he's also drawing upon more than 16 cumulative years of cooking experience — from his work in Richmond and additional cities such as Washington, D.C., and Chicago — to bring Castanea to life and help Shockoe Bottom grow.
“My vision of Shockoe Bottom is that it seems to me it has so much potential," says Denny. "I mean, the pedestrian thoroughfare around the market area there down by the farmers market — people should be walking around all over the place. There need to be more reasons for people to do that."
Castanea is located at 1814 E. Main St. (formerly a hookah lounge space) and is set to open for lunch and takeout on July 15, with dinner service beginning July 21. Lunch, happy hour and dinner served Tuesday through Friday; dinner-only on Saturday.
This post originally stated Denny has over seven cumulative years of experience; he has more than seven years of experience as a chef, but more than 16 years of total experience. The post has been edited to reflect this.