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Fried chicken, cornbread and the Southern classics come to life at La' V's.

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My wife likes to play games. Not the psycho-mess-with-your-head variety. The fun kind. A favorite is the Restaurant Game, which consists of a single question: "If you owned this restaurant, what would you change?"

I can recall only one time when the answer was "nothing." Considering that at the time we were seated in Ila's, a converted warehouse in the middle of nowhere, North Georgia, I think the answer surprised her.

One of my rules for dining out is to judge a restaurant based on what it aspires to be. Diner? Deli? Five star? La' V's aspires to be Ila's — a joint where you can catch up with neighbors over a serving of classic Southern cooking. It's a great goal. Richmond could use a humble serving of home-cooked meals. But it's easier said than done.

I'm reminded of irreverent chef and author Anthony Bourdain's advice for people who start a restaurant because for years their friends have told them they should: Don't. There is much more to operating a successful restaurant than a few good recipes. But maybe La' V can beat the odds on the tricky transition from cooking at home to down-home cooking. She's off to a decent start.

The wait staff is exceedingly gracious, though a little training in efficiency would augment their charm. And the exposed red brick interior lends to the homey atmosphere. Of course, good food is the basis of any restaurant's success, and though the food here is high on fat and salt, well, that's just Southern cooking. In the taste department, La' V's seems on track.

Along the back wall of the newly opened Shockoe Bottom joint is an elaborate painted menu, but don't waste too much time on all the options — the kitchen is not serving them yet. The current choices come on paper menus in two prices: $10.99 for the "Signature Suppers" and $8.99 for "Other Dinners." There are four choices on each list, and with the accompanying sides, any one is enough for dinner and lunch the next day.

La' V's signatures include smoked barbecued pork ribs bathed in a sauce that lies somewhere between Memphis and Carolina with its vinegary tang sweetened by a bit of tomato and a mess of onions and peppers. The country-style meat loaf is a tasty slab, fried to heat it through and dressed with that same tangy sauce.

Though relegated to the "Other" list, the Southern fried chicken takes 20 minutes to arrive and is worth the wait. The two huge pieces are double-dipped, crisp and juicy.

All dinners are served with a choice of two sides and either cornbread or dinner roll, both made fresh on the premises. The sides range from home-made macaroni and cheese to candied yams and fresh greens. Three standouts on the list were the lumpy mashed potatoes topped with melting butter; the green beans stewed with country bacon and onions; and the lightly breaded, fried broccoli, which is sure to delight even the most finicky 3-year-old.

The drink options include good lemonade and sweet tea, without a hint of the hard stuff. This may be what sets it apart from other joints in town that offer a similar experience. If you can imagine the Corner Bar and Grill or Croaker's Spot without the bar and its clientele, you'll have a fairly good idea of what La' V's has to offer. This is not yet "down home cooking at it's best!" as the menu says, but when the full menu hits the street and the service settles into a groove, La' V's goal will be within reach. S



La' V's Homemade Dining ($)
1823 E. Main St.
788-1911
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Supper: Sunday-Thursday 4-8 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday 4-9 p.m.



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