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Open Wide

Part One of our 2011 Richmond restaurant roundup.

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The grilled baby octopus at the Magpie in Carver was one of the year’s most delectable new dishes. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The grilled baby octopus at the Magpie in Carver was one of the year’s most delectable new dishes.

Is it weird that the local food bank rarely has been needier while the local restaurant scene rarely has been busier? Cans are flying off the shelves at FeedMore, and fundraisers for the city’s food pantry are launching in all directions (two Richmond restaurant weeks, La Difference, Dominion Resources, CarMax, Martin’s and Kroger among them). The nonprofit faces historic demand for services, and offers suggestions at feedmore.org for ways to help.

At the same time, there was a new independent restaurant opening in Richmond about every 10 days. Some of the city’s best-known chefs ventured into new waters: Michael Hall brought his rich niche to M Bistro in Rocketts Landing. Greg Johnson launched a tiny weekday flavor-fest downtown at Citizen. Stella Dikos revived her trademark Greek at the Lafayette Avenue charmer Stella’s. Owen Lane created a Carver treasure with a gastro-pub named the Magpie. Lee Gregory returned to cook for a crowd at Church Hill’s the Roosevelt. Kevin LaCivita created a firestorm of interest at the Blue Goat. Paolo Randazzo’s new beauty Portico quickly became standing-room-only. Comfort’s Jason Alley finally opened Pasture in a reawakening downtown.

New versions of old favorites made a reappearance too: Benny’s BBQ moved from Stratford Hills to Bon Air. Hard Shell did a double take in Midlothian. Enoteca Sogno found new life in North Side. Good Foods Cafe revived interest in Good Foods Grocery. Station 2 spun off from Baja Bean Co. Tio Pablo joined the Millie’s and LuLu’s group. Conch Republic took bar owner Bob Cox to new heights with its spectacular riverside deck. Selba’s garden room gave it a different identity than its sister, Star-Lite. Olio brought its Euro delicatessen favorites to a campus food cart and an office tower downtown. Kickstand introduced Lamplighter Coffee to Scott’s Addition. And Cupertino’s Bagels opened a second location in the financial district. Plaza Azteca and Mariachi’s Mexican Grill opened multiple units across the area.

Neighborhood eateries of all descriptions hoped to draw in regulars. Parkside Café, the Mill on MacArthur, Franklin Inn, Hogshead Café, the Local Eatery & Pub, Chicken Mania, OMG Café, Cellar Door, Thai Corner and Carlyle’s Cafe offered affordable meals in cozy settings with flavors as varied as Peruvian and soul.

Beauty was reclaimed at Mansion526 in Jackson Ward. Fast-casual French fare made La Parisienne a new downtown destination. Arcadia opened to fanfare from the Lincoln film. Peacock’s Pantry reclaimed a Fan corner. C Street dressed up Carytown. Margarita’s Cantina energized the former Zuppa space. And any number of Shockoe Bottom clubs came and went.

Soft openings also meant quiet closings for at least two dozen restaurants, among them Sprout, Grandpa Eddie’s Alabama Ribs & BBQ, Ejay Rin, Nate’s Taco Truck Stop, Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo, Mainstream, 3325 Café, Ellwood’s Café, Café Gutenberg, Double T’s Barbecue, Louisiana Flair, the Triple, Boom Boom Burgers, Country Folks Grille, Osteria la Giara, Dora’s Brazilian Grill, Phil’s Continental Lounge, which is moving a block west, Shenanigans, Davis & Main, and Copper Grill.

An increasingly rabid food press corps covered the scene with a competitive zeal once reserved for other kinds of news. Of particular note, new writer Amy David of Richmondbizsense.com and coffee marketer Stephen Robertson of Richmond.com did an admirable job examining restaurant business and food trends and the people who are obsessed with both.

There’s more news to come, of course. Next week we get specific about some two dozen restaurants about to open in hungry, hungry Richmond, and which end-of-year closings indicate who couldn’t keep up. S

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