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Enter Lulu's

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No restaurant in Richmond gets more national press than Millie's. In the past few months, The New York Times Magazine, Men's Journal and The Washington Post have all hailed the diner, and during its 20-years-and-counting arc of food triumph here, the laid-back local favorite has gotten mentions -- the good and unsolicited kind — in the country's most influential dining-out columns, from Los Angeles to Manhattan.

So when owner Paul Keevil decides to set up an offspring and chooses one of his veteran chefs to share it, there's a certain high alert among those who live and die by their dining destinations. Lulu's looks to be the newest contender in Richmond.

Steve Jurina, a local cooking icon after 15 years at the Millie's range, is about to open Lulu's at 21 N. 17th St., in a building that's been vacant for years and where Chetti's Cow and Clam once ran a very different show.

The place is stripped clean and started fresh, with a determinedly sexy high-tech design that incorporates warm colors, bamboo and a fossil-like concrete bar "that's a piece of artwork, 6,000 pounds of beauty," Jurina says, heaping praise on Alexander Kitchin, the Charlottesville artisan who constructed it. The polished concrete top will serve a dozen people, probably more than a few of them familiar faces.

From his open kitchen, Jurina says he'll be able to see every table and know exactly what's happening in the room. People who've watched him cook will get more of the same, but with a new menu. There's a purposeful difference in what Lulu's will serve — gourmet comfort food on a 10-item list, mac and cheese with grilled shrimp, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and signature specials. Because the restaurant's shooting for high-rotation regulars, all entrees will be less than $17, with wines topping out at $30 a bottle — "a niche that's needed in Richmond," Jurina says, "where you can get a very nice meal at a reasonable price."

"There's a lot of water in Richmond," Keevil opines of the local restaurant explosion during the past two decades, "but not always a lot to drink. This is not a joint. It will be reliable and unique and exciting, where you can go and be guaranteed not to have a bad meal, which is what I think they say about Millie's." Art photographs are going up on the walls now, and the place should be cleared for licensing and a soft opening later this month.

"We've taken our time with it — and a lot of thought and design have gone into this, and to good quality food," Keevil says. It's a vision separate from Millie's or anywhere else. What Keevil and Jurina hope won't change is the success. "I've been having a great day for 20 years now, and thankfully our clientele appreciates us," Keevil says.

And there's more. "Watch this space," he says of the next sibling business coming to the table. S



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