If your forays into Jackson Ward have been limited to the monthly art walk, you're missing out on an up-and-coming culinary destination. This architecturally stunning, historically rich neighborhood boasts much more than art galleries on Broad Street, important as they are to the area's identity as part of the arts district. If you mosey deeper into J-Ward, you'll see what's popped up and what's still holding things down in a neighborhood becoming the next big thing.
Every neighborhood needs a good bakery, and here it's Sweetopia, the brainchild of Jamyce Vinson. She's been selling her baked goods at farmers' markets for years. At her airy corner space, she'll greet you with a smile, locally roasted Sefton coffee and a case full of temptations, including gluten-free products on Fridays. Choose from cookies, slices of three-layer cake, mini loaves of glazed zucchini bread, muffins and, if they haven't sold out, buttery apple turnovers to swoon for.
221 E. Clay St.
Monday 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Island Bliss Café
Walk into Island Bliss Café and you'll find servers in sunny orange T-shirts, steel drum music playing overhead and a menu of West Indian and American soul food. Even the lilt of the owner's Jamaican accent helps set the scene. It's a popular spot on First Fridays, where a diverse crowd tucks into piquant jerk pork, oxtails with butter beans and jerk chicken pasta. Other tables keep it simple with Red Stripes and sandwiches. Either way, it's all good.
114 E. Clay St.
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Nick's Produce & International Food Market
A neighborhood stalwart, Nick's Produce & International Food Market seduces with sandwiches and spoken word. Regulars to Nick's for the past 25 years look forward to the garrulous Tony taking sandwich orders and calling them to the kitchen in a way that's part carnival barker and part auctioneer: "Ham and turkey halfway, hold the tomato. Keep on rolling! BLT all the way. Oil or oil and vinegar, that's what I'm trying to get straight!" His nonstop patter is as good as the sandwiches, renowned for their meatiness. When neighbors need something quickly, this is the place for butter, potatoes or cucumbers — and always garlic and peppers. Nick's swings both ways, part European with tins of mussels in pickled sauce, stuffed squid in ink sauce and octopus in oil, baklava desserts, and solidly Richmond with Duke's mayonnaise and local tomatoes in season.
400 W. Broad St.
Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Beef is all over the menu at this inviting new spot along J-Ward's main drag, Second Street, once known as the "Harlem of the South." Every cut of cow, from burger to steak, makes the scenic trip from the Northern Neck's Monrovia Farm — 140 acres with 128 grazing Black Angus cattle, and notable because it belongs to co-owner Amanda Lucy's sister and brother-in-law. Local sourcing at its best. Sit beside the "living wall" of miniature plants near the grand picture window and watch the street theater provide ever-changing entertainment that no TV screen could match.
404 N. Second St.
Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
For a quarter of a century, Ray's Doghouse — an unprepossessing, glorified food cart, albeit permanently rooted — has kept a devoted following. Downtown workers and locals wouldn't think of letting a week go by without a stop at the corner of First and Marshall streets. In Ray's world, dogs are fair game for late risers, and the breakfast sandwich of a hot dog with eggs and cheese is nothing if not eye-opening. If hot dogs don't float your boat, Ray's also serves up Italian sausages.
401 N. First St.
Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday 1-4 p.m.
To get really deep into J-Ward geographically, check out the Rogue Gentlemen, a mere slip of a restaurant with a laser focus on cocktails. Its guest 'tender series brings notable mixologists from such hotspots as Barrel DC and Chow in Norfolk to show Richmond a thing or two with one-night drink menus. Keep in mind the gentlemen's nixes — no reservations, no Tuesdays and, most satisfyingly, no TV — and you'll discover plenty to imbibe. Or see it by daylight for, as at a recent Sunday brunch, a toad in the hole and brioche doughnut holes dusted with pistachio.
618 N. First St.
Monday, Wednesday-Saturday 4 p.m.-midnight, Sunday 10:30 a.m.-4p.m.
Don't stop here. Comfort originally put Jackson Ward on Richmond's collective radar, Max's on Broad brought Belgian bistro dining and Saison continues to get national media attention. Old-timers sing the praises of the classic lake trout sandwich at King's Fish Market. Experience Mama J's Kitchen, Thai Corner, Lift, Big Herm's Kitchen and Jamerican Café to see how many ways there are to eat your way through the neighborhood.