A little more than 20 years ago, Style named Richmond’s 40 best restaurants, a sort of proto-State of the Plate. Although some of the names — Du Jour, Puzzles, Main Street Grill — stir serious nostalgia and not a little regret over their absence, we discovered that more than 20 percent of the restaurants are still around. The Frog and the Redneck may be gone, but Millie’s is here. Caffe Di Pagliacci is now a pizza place, but Mamma ’Zu continues to pack in the crowds every night. So what if the sign has faded a bit? That’s called staying power. Here’s what we said back in 1994 and what we’re thinking about these diehard restaurants now.
Richmonders have forgiven Amici for renovating its porch and forever changing everyone’s favorite place for northern Italian fare. (Maybe.) It was rumored that Richard Gere, on a visit to Richmond, loved the restaurant, as did Anthony Hopkins. It does have a nice Chianti. “At Amici neither pasta nor its ubiquitous cover, tomato sauce, are king,” Style wrote. “Meats, especially veal, and fish and shellfish are the feature, and most are prepared in the northern Italian fashion of butter and cream rather than oil. The food is good and often deliciously rich.” You won’t see much veal on the menu anymore — instead, you’ll find more vegetarian options. Some of the butter has been replaced with olive oil, but Amici is still delivering on its promise of richness every day.
The Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel
“It has become an institution, not only in the Slip but in the city,” Style wrote in 1994. Lots of great chefs have come and gone through its kitchen, including Matthew Tlusty (the Garden Grille and Bar at the Hilton Garden Inn), J. Frank (Dixie Donuts), Mike Yavorsky (Belmont Food Shop) and today, chef Ken Wall. The food still has “subtlety and style and changes with the seasons,” as Style put it, all in a white-tablecloth setting that’s been freshened over the years. But it’s never lost its leather-chaired, masculine vibe.
Although technically in Shockoe Bottom, Church Hill diners immediately adopted Millie’s in 1989, despite two-hour waits. Its devil’s mess became legendary, and it was the first, in Richmond at least, to throw a squiggle of sriracha on every plate. “Millie’s motto could be ‘It’s the ingredients, stupid,’” Style wrote. “The kitchen knows no boundaries, mixing fresh Virginia ingredients with seasonings from Thai to French.”
“We absolutely love the feeling of cozying up at a table for two and watching the trains roll by,” Style’s reviewers said. That feeling hasn’t changed, although the Ironhorse’s big steaks are off the menu and the crawfish étouffé has been switched out for shrimp and grits. Back then we said, “The eats make a good thing even better.” Ironhorse still strives for that today.
Lemaire’s loveliness is surpassed only by the sublime dishes created by executive chef Walter Bundy. Lemaire won the 2013 Elby award for fine dining, and Bundy, in his speech, said he didn’t want diners to think about the restaurant as quite so fancy. Upscale casual may be his culinary style, but the interior belies the intent. “Locals and out-of-towners love this upscale spot for its elegance, its aura and its top-rate cuisine,” Style wrote. You can’t argue with success.
“The little blackboard menu changes often and runs the gamut from pasta, fish, fowl and meat, and we’ve yet to be disappointed,” Style said about the tiny spot on Belmont Avenue. Ownership has changed hands twice, and chef Andy Howell, now owner and chef of Camden Dogtown Market, is long gone. But new proprietors, Anne and Randy Dudley, have kept their hands off the menu to keep the business humming along.
Garnering national attention from the likes of Saveur and the Daily Meal, Mamma ’Zu still serves a killer bowl of clams and pasta and knows exactly when to take the branzino off the flame. Back then, Style noted, “This place came on the scene with a bang, but its service (or lack thereof) has hurt it in informal polls.” It seems to have escaped unscathed. And the wait staff now is whole new breed. “The food is fabulous,” Style said, with generous servings and a reasonable price. Well, at least we got that right.
The Tobacco Company
Stepping through the doors of the restaurant that brought Shockoe Slip back from the dead is like stepping into a time capsule. The brass elevator is still there, as is the giant, turn-of-the-last-century chandelier and a whole lot of hanging ferns. Hello, 1978. The menu has evolved, but the she-crab soup and shrimp cocktail cling fast. “Few places deserve ‘institution status,’ but this one does,” Style wrote. “Those in the know take note of who’s sitting with whom in those semi-private cubbies. The portions are legion and worth waiting for.”