"You know there isn't any alcohol in the bottles," says the culinary student manning the water station at the 2015 Elby awards. The two be-sequined women staring at his straight face couldn't quite figure out the joke. Behind them, in the crammed marble hall of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, alcohol was pouring freely from wine and cocktail stations, and waiters were walking around with trays full of even more drinks. Stashed away from the main action in a tiny corner, water wasn't much in demand.
Ah, the Elbys. It's a combination of spectacle, costume party and the prom — and still manages to recognize those restaurants and chefs who excelled in the past year. Unexpected interjections from the audience during the ceremony and unbridled cheering after each winner is announced are the norm. Everyone knows everyone, and the collegial goodwill flattens egos — at least for a couple of hours.
Themes are squeezed hard at the event, and this year's embraced all things from 1970s-era Studio 54. Master of ceremonies Jason Tesauro danced in a silver suit with a group of scantily clad VCU Gold Rush dancers while a funk-driven live band played onstage. Tesauro, a man who tried to get "stage fright" removed from the dictionary, revealed that he can not only rap, but also summon his inner Barry Manilow and sing 'Copacabana' with full-throated gusto.
The gloves were off when the show began immediately with the best new restaurant category, won handily by L'Opossum. Chef and owner David Shannon seemed slightly overcome but recovered quickly to thank those who contributed to the restaurant's success.
Two of the biggest awards went to Heritage and its co-owner Joe Sparatta. He seemed stunned after Heritage was announced as restaurant of the year, and later, co-owner and brother-in-law Mattias Haglund stood repeating: "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it." Sparatta's win as chef of the year may have contributed to the happy, yet glazed looks on the faces of Heritage's entire staff.
Acacia Mid-Town also won two awards: one for Richmond stalwart (best restaurant open five years or more) and another for its wine program. Metzger Bar & Butchery's Brittanny Anderson took home the rising star award, and in a new category, purveyor of the year, Autumn Olive Farms won and also gave a heartfelt shout-out to fellow nominee Manakintowne Growers, which blazed the path for local farmers.
Another new category, the innovator award, went to Comfort's Travis Milton. "I was already crying before I won when I heard all of the nice things Ronni Lundy said about me," he said later, of the quote read in his introduction from one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
The best beer program award went to Saison, which brought its entire staff onstage. The Rogue Gentleman took home the best cocktail program award and Kirby Baltzegar of Dutch & Co. was named employee of the year.
While giant wigs bobbed on the dance floor and classic '70s music videos played above on the marble walls of the museum, Culinard and J. Sargeant Reynolds culinary students fed a celebratory crowd that was unfettered for an evening from feeding anyone at all.