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Last Course

A year in digestion.

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Locavores had a field day in 2008, but accountants rooted out something different on the restaurant landscape. For every opening and every locally grown golden beet on a new cafAc's menu, there was a ream of red ink elsewhere; the city's fields of green took a few significant hits, with the threat of more to come.

Franco's Ristorante, for two decades one of the West End's best Italian restaurants, shut down so that chef and owner Paulo Randazzo could concentrate on the hotter and more chain-free River District with his Sensi Italian Chop House. Also losing the long-timer battle, La Petite France couldn't sustain its former brilliance despite the best efforts of witty chef-owner Karol Gajda, who moved on to Kona Grill, an upscale Short Pump chain.

Chains pulled the plug too, notably Copeland's Cheesecake Bistro, where gargantuan portions bordered on the obscene. Its perch in Stony Point Fashion Park seemed to be fail-proof but sits waiting now, along with the still-empty Rio Grande.

Cirrus, in the Fan's former Dogwood Grille spot, barely got started before it closed. Popular and well-placed spots fell victim to the times as well: Acappella in Church Hill; the folksy Corner Bar & Grill in Carver; quirky beloved Jumpin J's in Church Hill; and the Old City Bar near Main Street Station (David Napier's expert Southern hospitality has been repurposed for catering and parties, though). Also, old favorites and newer ventures such as the Piano Club, Infuzion, Easy Street, Cabo's Corner Bistro, Red Oak CafAc in Goochland and several smaller places folded, none happily.

But who had time to mourn? Restaurants opened to almost instant buzz, thanks to voracious food bloggers who love a new thing: The Black Sheep, a stellar and affordable spot in Carver; Mezzanine, upping the locally raised food-factor in Carytown; Acacia Mid-town, barely beating the New Year with its Cary Street reopening; and Stronghill Dining Company, statement-making new Southern cuisine in a pivotal Boulevard location.

Great fare springs out of Shahi Kitchen, resurrecting an Aunt Sarah's pancake house into luscious Indo-Pak cuisine; Rivers Ridge, replacing the old Grafitti Grille with a warm, woodsy dining room-bar combo that's huge in the West End; sleek and spacious Aurora downtown, where the pastries are world-class and the Russian owners magnanimous; elegant, delectable Verbena giving its great corner location the restaurant it desires; Church Hill's bonus restaurant Que Pasa, which opened against all odds and aims to please with its earthy Latin flavors; the tender familial tribute at the Phoenician, serving Lebanese with heart and fantasy; and many notable others, such as Moshi Moshi, Sheba, Alex's, New India, and a particular favorite, Halligan Bar & Grill, surely a unique cafAc in this city with its own brotherhood. Barbecue's big there, almost as central as at Q Barbeque in Midlothian, the new wave in smoked meats.

Ellie Basch fans discovered the bright clean flavors of Savor in Manchester. The suburbs got hipper with Sushi O in Midlothian and the reliably fresh artistry at Umi Sushi in Short Pump and Cafe Caturra's ski-lodge appeal at Libbie and Grove. And there are many more, all doing their part to make Richmond's culinary scene ever more interesting.

Next week, a look at restaurant openings planned for 2009. S

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