Taste Testing

Three Richmond restaurants just opened and hope you notice.

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Over the weekend, three restaurants opened in Richmond within four miles of each other, and that’s where the similarities end. One is a corporate heavyweight with public relations teams and an eye already on expansion. The other two are small, first-time ventures where Facebook is the marketing plan and soft openings are considerably more free-form. All of them hope to find an audience starting now, and here’s what they’re pitching:

American Tap Room hosted more than 700 guests over its trial weekend in the Willow Lawn shopping center before opening to the public on Veteran’s Day. The 6,500 square-foot space once was an Old Navy store, and well before that, a Miller & Rhoads. Now it’s an upscale pub with a firepit on the patio, an open-air bar on one side and a big, boothy dining room on the other. There’s a 100-item beer list of craft brews from Afton to Petaluma, on draft, in cans and bottles. An appetizer of fried deviled eggs with spicy aioli sets the tone– rich and improbable, beer-friendly and talked about.

Beginning last Thursday, lawmakers, business folks and neighbors poured in for the invitational roll out. Food writers got an ample taste-testing, and corporate owners Thompson Hospitality gauged early customer interest. Some of the company’s other concepts, such as Austin Grill and a pizza-and-salad kitchen, are in the running if things go well here. (A competitor is opening a similarly large wine bar next door, next year, and other chains are paying notice to the neighborhood. With residents moving in, the area is transforming and potentially lucrative.)

Though it is corporate, Tap Room management describes the menu as chef-driven and local, with gluten-free options, seasonal soups, two dozen sandwiches and entrees, and burgers weighing in at half a pound. Red wing chairs and plaid carpeting are safe but comfy throwbacks to tradition. Historic black and white photos are conversation starters, especially those of Prohibition cops and the shiny Willow Lawn archway. A so-named governor’s room in the front corner displays photos of Virginia chief executives from Wilder to (presumably, eventually) McAuliffe, framed and arranged by political leanings from left to right.

Although it's a tap room, the customer base starts well before drinking age, with targeted Mommy and Me programs and community fundraisers, marshmallow dipping sauce for the pretzels, and the suburban familiarity of a diner that keeps the taps out of view. The $20 Sunday buffet will have meat carving stations, omelets to order and hot doughnuts, with a separate kids’ section for make-your-own sweets and a bounty that “rivals the Jefferson,” one manager predicted.

If the opening weekend is any indication, customers can expect a phalanx of newly-indoctrinated servers, large and well-executed portions, and a bit of surprise at how this mid-century shopping center has morphed yet again. 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, unit 840. 308-9013 americantaproom.com

Level Restaurant & Bar turned a former insurance agency into something flashier at 2007 W. Broad St. A bubble wall and colorful interactive bar top set the tone for a lounge-y spot with private party space in the loft. Beyond its sleek décor, Level wants to be known for its food and drinks, manager Sandy Wang says, plus the hospitality of a social-minded staff.

Wang hired 14 employees for the venture – college-student servers, sushi chefs from New York and a kitchen crew that makes sauces and meals from scratch. “Nothing is frozen, we do everything ourselves,” Wang says. The menu is expansive and moderately priced. Starters include Peking duck wrap, gyoza (pan fried pork and chicken dumplings), grilled lamb lollipops and seafood. Noodle soups and salads with a ginger dressing “so good I could drink it,” Wang insists, are among the mid-range choices. Steaks, chops, bento boxes, sushi and sashimi round out the options, along with cocktails, wine and beer. The 117-seat cafe was packed with young revelers over the weekend, and in the usual ritual of soft-opening etiquette, guests began posting praise online within hours.

“It’s very important to go out, have a drink, meet your friends,” Wang says of the need for a properly stylish setting and customer mindset. To help guests take in the atmosphere, chairs and booths are positioned for views of the light-animated Sauer’s sign across the street, and into the restaurant’s modern mirrored interior, where things look very different from the office days. Open for lunch, dinner and bar daily, with a dozen parking spaces at the side of the building. 353-8885

My Noodle & Bar is the smallest of this trio and the only one to take over where other restaurants have fallen. It’s in the cellar of Stuart Court apartments, 1600 Monument Ave., and a first foray for Joe Kiatsuranon, familiar to Carytown diners as manager at Mom’s Siam. Now that he’s a husband and father, Kiatsuranon has coaxed his mom out of a short-lived retirement there to help with his Asian menu of Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese dishes in a place he calls “hip(ish) with amazing noodles.”

In its opening weekend, pumped through social media, My Noodle unveiled to family and friends a work enthusiastically in progress. The kitchen equipment is all new while the interior is a modestly redecorated version of previous businesses there (Cellar Door, Down Under, Artist Underground, etc.) Its chartreuse walls and dark wood booths are low-key but the music is upbeat, and the space is so small it’s full at 50 people. Customers also have started showing the love online, and the owners are offering an inducement to come eat: A portion of proceeds from entrée sales will go to local English as Second Language programs, a cause close to Kiatsuranon’s heart. He’s a former student whose success was made possible by ESL classes.

As with the other new restaurants, the owners promise “something different for Richmond,” an ever-harder claim in a city where even the jaded gape at the momentum of openings. One new-for-here focus at My Noodle will be its Sunday Thai brunch, debuting in December with unusual items and a starting hour of 8 a.m., a rarity in the Fan. For now, customers can get a kitty sticker for visiting, to “put on a stranger’s car” or elsewhere, their Facebook page teases. Open daily. 308-1613.

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