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After five years, Grafiti Grille has found its niche as a superb neighborhood bistro.

The Writing is on the Wall

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When the opened back in 1995, it seemed more like a restaurant that we'd find in the Fan than in the heart of the West End. With a decor as slightly wacky as its name and in a building as undistinguished as a painted cinder block, its casual bistro ambiance didn't fit the West End stereotype. It became a destination restaurant when the word got out that the food was worth a trip. Five years later, the graffiti on the walls inside seem to have gotten more sophisticated; the slightly wacky decor still looks cutting-edge, but the Grafiti seems to have found its role as a neighborhood restaurant, one it seems to wear comfortably. On a recent Saturday night, several tables were filled with families (with well -behaved children) and other diners who looked more like they were from the neighborhood than like hip foodies from all over. The atmosphere was less frantic and noisy — a pleasant place to have a nice dinner. [image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)If you don't go to the Grafiti often, you may be surprised to find a very different menu than the last time you were there. The changing menu has been a fixture of the restaurant, and it still changes about every five weeks. Of course, there are some constants, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is "tweaked" rather than "changed." Additional editorial comment in the menu can be helpful and often amusing. A little hype can describe as well as sell the product. Time has mellowed the changes. In the past, I've had some wonderfully inventive meals with a buffalo steak, duck and rabbit. The duck nachos are still there for starters, but the menu is tamer now, less innovative than in the past. Those duck nachos with mango salsa ($6.95) are a delightful departure from the usual Tex-Mex nachos and are wonderful for sharing over a drink or aperitif. I would like a bit more fire in the salsa, but its sweetness is seductive — and who ever thought duck would end up on a tortilla chip? The current menu declares the nachos are back by popular demand. Good choice. The starters ($3.50-$7.95) at Grafiti are almost always imaginative, and I've rarely been disappointed except by an occasional soup du jour ($3.50) (this time an uninspired cream of mushroom-spinach) or a creative pairing of elements that simply doesn't work. The entree salads ($9.95-$10.95) are usually inventive and make a satisfying meal. An Asian-inspired salad with duck confit sounds promising — the menu calls it a "helluva winner." [image-2](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)Entrees ($12.95-$27.95) will almost always include the Grafiti veal meatloaf with mushroom gravy and the vegetarian special (dubbed "Harold's"), which changes content but not its name. You'll almost always find a couple of fish and shellfish preparations, something with chicken, and two or three meat dishes as well as a few daily specials. Pepper-coated tuna with a drizzle of red curry and a watercress vinaigrette was spicy hot, but ubiquitous mashed potatoes neutralized the fire. The beef at Grafiti is very good, and I succumbed to a daily special of a filet with oysters topped with a béarnaise sauce. The filet was superb but the two oysters added little but price, and the tricky sauce (or the cook) failed completely. I should have asked the price ($27.95) and was surprised by a special so much more expensive than the menu items. We'll learn to ask. We finished with a delicious ginger-flavored crŠme br–lée, chosen from the familiar Richmond dessert litany — the Key-lime pie is also a cut above. The brash innovations of the Grafiti kitchen, the artful presentations, the exuberant energy that characterizes the place, the solicitous host-owner-sometimes-chef haven't disappeared. The once-youthful Grafiti has mellowed with age and perhaps found its niche as a superb neighborhood bistro.

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