The aurora borealis is a phenomenon caused by charged electrons and other particles bombarding Earth's magnetosphere. You won't find those Northern Lights in Richmond, but the 40-foot windows at Aurora, located at 401 E. Grace St., let in plenty of downtown sunshine by day and ample cityscape moonlight after dark, when the café transforms into a mod retro lounge space. Most of the staff, family and friends behind Aurora are Russian, which lends foreign intrigue to the establishment. Richmond could use some international flair, and Aurora's Ruskis-with-brewskis flavor blends accented conversation and stylish eyewear to add a touch of Eastern Bloc to our very own downtown perestroika.
What was the Virginia Bank circa the 1950s is transformed into a fabulously inviting space with clean European lines. Chrome booths and handsome tables host morning coffee and house-made pastries, followed by a superb salad bar ($7.95) that transcends the usual leaves-‘n'-tongs. As twilight falls, the emphasis shifts to white sofas and loveseats arranged parlor-style for canoodling and carousing, along with an eclectic tapas menu. The wide bar arches outward in a convex grin, greeting passersby with slick lighting and a welcoming staff.
Bar manager/mixologist Luca Ferranti's Paid in Full is a can't-miss cocktail. Citrus zing precedes a tropical twist of pineapple and a mix of gin and flavored vodka. Be adventurous — it only costs a crisp Lincoln. Or, for a buck more, try the Juan Valdez, a creamy drink that eschews wintry chills with vanilla warmth. The global wine list spotlights lesser-known labels from recognizable producers, plus affordable gems from Washington, Alsace, Spain, Australia and Italy. A lack of Virginia wines was surprising, but Ferranti promises they're coming. Beer drinkers are not ignored here either. Dogfish Head, Duvel, Paulaner, Hoegaarden and Baltika (a Russian brew) are represented amid more standard fare.
Decorated pastry chef Scott Davison, also the establishment's co-owner and general manager, is working closely with Ferranti to integrate culinary ideas of flavor and presentation into the bar culture. "Ever want to eat the glass?" Ferranti asks. "We're bringing in edible cups, beautiful garnishes and touches like frozen fruit-purée coins as ice cubes."
Try a few of Aurora's flavors yourself, with drink recipes courtesy of Ferranti:
Paid in Full
3/4 ounce of Tanqueray gin
3/4 ounce of Smirnoff orange
Splash of sour mix Pineapple juice to fill
Serve tall on the rocks.
1 ounce of Van Gogh vodka
1 ounce of Bailey's
1/2 ounce of vanilla vodka
Pour the first two ingredients, then top with vanilla vodka poured over a cherry. Serve up in a rocks glass and remove the cherry.