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2014 Richmonders of the Year: The City’s Food and Drink Pioneers

Opening a restaurant is tough enough. But bold entrepreneurs have upped the ante by embracing neighborhoods that yearn for renewal. Their risks are paying off across the city.

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When foundations are laid and roofs are raised, you have the makings of a city. But a community doesn’t find its identity until its people come together. To work, govern, worship and celebrate. And yes — to eat and drink together. Around dinner tables, side by side on barstools, in grocery stores and along the stands of farmers markets.

Richmond’s food culture starts at Jamestown. It moves forward through the history books and pulls from the countries of those who made Richmond home. It beats as the heart of a burgeoning Southern region, with modern experimentation, the hand of family recipes and the taste of Virginia treasures. The briny breeze of an oyster from the Chesapeake Bay. The salty punch of country ham. Peanuts, wine, hearty desserts and produce fresh from the farm.

And soon enough, the food and drink comes back around to bolster old neighborhoods needing renewal. In Richmond, entrepreneurs brave enough — or crazy enough — have been among the first to push into areas where few have gone, areas with rich histories but slow growth. Into empty buildings they take their restaurants and breweries, risking in an already risky industry by putting faith in the food they serve and the residents and visitors who are searching for a place to gather.

For taking those risks, bringing people together, sparking growth and helping define our local culture, Style Weekly names the city’s food and drink pioneers as the 2014 Richmonders of the Year.

 

A turning point for the Church Hill neighborhood came with Alamo BBQ, where Chris Davis and Paul Hubbard play up their theme at the 2009 opening. - CHRISTINE LOCKERBY
  • Christine Lockerby
  • A turning point for the Church Hill neighborhood came with Alamo BBQ, where Chris Davis and Paul Hubbard play up their theme at the 2009 opening.

If you stand on the corner of 25th and M streets at the traffic circle in Church Hill and squint your eyes, you might be reminded of Brooklyn in the late ’90s, when the New York borough first started to come back to life.

You see runners, parents pushing strollers and people walking dogs. A few years ago, the scene would have been much different.

In the early 1980s, crack and heroin arrived in Church Hill, and the East End neighborhood was hit hard. Middle-class black families who comprised much of the population north of East Broad Street began moving out. Houses were left abandoned and others slipped into dilapidation.

The Hill Café, opened in 2000 by Michelle Williams, Jared Golden and Ted Wallof, was one of the few places to go out for something to eat. The blocks south of Broad surrounding St. John’s Church were a tightly knit enclave of white, upper-middle-class families who’d restored their houses — but little else was happening.

John Murden, who runs the website Church Hill People’s News, moved to Fairmont Avenue in 2003. “My block was all vacant,” he says.

A turning point began with Alamo BBQ’s arrival in 2009, he says. The restaurant opened in an old gas station at Jefferson Avenue, Clay Street and North 22nd. “It was a great common-ground place. It was affordable, it was cool,” he says. “They were the first people that brought people in from outside the neighborhood.”

Alamo owner Chris Davis worked two jobs and lived in Spartan conditions in a shed behind the building while working on it. “I felt like the Fan was full,” Davis says. “It was still a rough neighborhood, six, seven years ago, but it’s so close to the city. I saw a lot of potential for it.”

Two years later, Murden’s wife, Kendra Feather, owner of Ipanema Cafe and Garnett’s Cafe, opened the Roosevelt with former Six Burner chef Lee Gregory. Feather’s Ipanema landlords had approached her about putting a restaurant in a building that was in foreclosure, which they’d been thinking about buying.

“They wanted to do it if I wanted to do it,” Feather says. “They’ve been investing in Church Hill for a while.”

Howard and Karen Kellman, Feather’s landlords, are key to the development of Church Hill’s food scene. They own the buildings that house not only the Roosevelt, but also Dutch & Co., WPA Bakery and another retail space on 27th Street. In Scott’s Addition, they own Rick Lyons’ Lunch and Supper properties.

Their first property was an eyesore before it became Captain Buzzy’s Beanery. After its renewal, Karen Kellman says, “Church Hill property values went up 25 to 30 percent. If a building stands empty, it’s not good for the neighborhood.”

Accolades have fallen on the Roosevelt, named Style Weekly’s Restaurant of the Year in 2012. Its chef, Lee Gregory, has been a James Beard semifinalist twice for best chef in the mid-Atlantic. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Accolades have fallen on the Roosevelt, named Style Weekly’s Restaurant of the Year in 2012. Its chef, Lee Gregory, has been a James Beard semifinalist twice for best chef in the mid-Atlantic.

The Roosevelt was an immediate success and garnered national attention. Gregory’s been a James Beard award semifinalist for best chef in the mid-Atlantic twice, and StarChefs named him a rising star this year. Garden & Gun magazine published a prominent story about the restaurant, and it consistently makes the national best-of lists that are published throughout the year.

“The Roosevelt came in solid,” Murden says. “And the attention it got changed things, but it was a move that was happening — it went hand in hand.”

In 2012, Feather opened WPA Bakery with partner David Rohrer. The same day, Nikki Price and Neil Smith opened Proper Pie Co. Food & Wine magazine’s favorite, Dutch & Co., owned by Caleb and Michelle Peake Shriver and Phil Perrow, soon followed in 2013. And this year, the neighborhood saw the opening of a small grocery and cafe, Urban Market, a new German restaurant, Metzger Bar & Butchery, and a gourmet takeout spot, the Dog and Pig Show.

In May, USA Today named Church Hill one of the country’s 10 up-and-coming neighborhoods.

Bon Secours Health System is another major force behind the neighborhood’s revitalization. The charitable arm of the company established a grant program in 2011 targeting greater Church Hill called Supporting East End Entrepreneurship. It has awarded a total of $240,000 to businesses such as WPA Bakery, Union Market, Metzger Bar & Butchery and Sub Rosa Bakery.

Church Hill dining pioneers include Kendra Feather of the Roosevelt, center, with SubRosa Bakery’s sibling team Evin and Evrim Dogu. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Church Hill dining pioneers include Kendra Feather of the Roosevelt, center, with SubRosa Bakery’s sibling team Evin and Evrim Dogu.

In many ways, Sub Rosa, which opened in 2012 across the street from the Roosevelt, epitomizes the change that’s come to this part of Richmond. It too has attracted considerable praise from national media, with mentions in Saveur, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Three months after brother and sister owners Evrim and Evin Dogu opened their doors, a fire seriously damaged the bakery. Support came from across the community. There were fundraisers at the Roosevelt. Dutch & Co. offered its kitchen and sold Sub Rosa’s products in its restaurant. And neighbor Corey Lane started an online campaign that raised more than $16,000. The bakery reopened less than year later.

“We just gave it a shot,” Feather says about the Roosevelt. “People walk up to me now and say their plan is to open their next restaurant in Church Hill. It wasn’t like that at all for us. It was just a good opportunity.”

Richmond and its dining scene reached an apex in 2014, hitting the radar of national publications.

The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema arrived for a visit to find restaurants here to be “surprising, seasonal, sophisticated.” The New York Times toured Church Hill.

CNN called Richmond one of seven up-and-coming foodie destinations, and Saveur magazine published a where-to-eat guide to Richmond on its website and included Sally Bell’s Kitchen in its annual Top 100 best food, drinks and restaurants list.

Food and Wine magazine fell in love with Dutch & Co., Esquire named Rappahannock as one of the country’s best restaurants, and Sub Rosa was lauded in that magazine as well. The Roosevelt’s Gregory was a second-time semifinalist in the James Beard awards, and StarChefs named Gregory, Jason Alley, Phil Perrow, Caleb Shriver and Joe Sparrata as rising stars.

Big foodie summits such as the Mid-Atlantic Food Writers Conference and Fire, Flour & Fork brought in celebrity chefs, food writers, cookbook authors and editors, and showed them a vibrant city they may not have seen before. The buzz they took home created more press — and press brings in tourists.

That isn’t lost on folks at the Richmond Region Tourism, or at the Virginia Tourism Corp., which makes restaurants, wineries and craft breweries a central part of its brand and marketing strategy. Officials are at the ready to cite a litany of Richmond restaurant industry accolades, with stats on jobs, economic impact and tax revenue generated for the area.

“I see Richmond as a microcosm of the Virginia food product,” says Thad Smith, brand director for Virginia Tourism Corp., in an email. “Very diverse, very good, and reflective of where the chef is from and what the philosophy is. Also, the beer and spirits scene is among the best on the East Coast.”

Smith considers Richmond chefs as ambassadors, blazing a trail for the state culinary scene. “These chefs not only are some of the most talented in the country,” he says, “but they also are passionate about putting Virginia as a whole on the map as a premiere culinary destination.”

But the city’s food and drink pioneers also attract another kind of tourist — a micro-tourist, if you will. Someone from one part of the metro area who may venture into a new neighborhood for the first time. Looking around, that person might be struck by the area’s charm, livability or commercial viability. The domino effect sparks — and the neighborhood starts to see new investment and new faces on its streets.

 

Isley Brewing Co., which opened in October 2013, is one of the breweries — along with Ardent Craft Ales — that have found a home in Scott’s Addition. A third is on the way, and an urban winery concept has been proposed for the area. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Isley Brewing Co., which opened in October 2013, is one of the breweries — along with Ardent Craft Ales — that have found a home in Scott’s Addition. A third is on the way, and an urban winery concept has been proposed for the area.

Bill Webb has watched Scott’s Addition evolve around him from industrial to mixed-use. Built in 1946, the diner he co-owns with his wife, Patricia, is the second-oldest building in the light industrial district just North of Broad Street from the Museum District.

When the Webbs bought the Dairy Bar 20 years ago, the neighborhood’s fortunes were mixed. Vacancies were popping up, but core businesses remained — machine shops, mechanics, a wholesale florist.

Today he’s considering expanding hours with hundreds of new apartments scheduled to go online and restaurants, cafes and breweries flooding in, transforming the neighborhood landscape and its outlook.

“The vision is to make it like a Carytown,” Webb says. “And slowly but surely, I think that’s what’s happening.”

Walking the sparse, industrial streets, it might sound like a stretch. But consider the development Scott’s Addition, and the neighboring Boulevard, have attracted in the past two years. There are two breweries, Ardent Craft Ales and Isley Brewing Co., with a third on the way. A bidding war has erupted over an abandoned city property that once served as stables. Among the proposed concepts is an urban winery.

On the restaurant front, neighborhood stalwarts like the Dairy Bar have been augmented by newcomers such as Rick Lyons’ popular siblings, Lunch and Supper. Richmond cafe chains have followed, with Lamplighter and Urban Farmhouse opening locations. On the Boulevard, Fat Dragon, En Su Boca and Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue brighten an otherwise blighted strip.

In particular, En Su Boca’s developer, Charlie Diradour, took a dilapidated adult bookstore at the neighborhood’s southern gateway and turned it into something that looks hip — a move he says led other developers to take notice.

Randy O’Dell and Patrick Stamper helped add color and life to a blighted strip along the Boulevard by opening En Su Boca with developer Charlie Diradour. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Randy O’Dell and Patrick Stamper helped add color and life to a blighted strip along the Boulevard by opening En Su Boca with developer Charlie Diradour.

Next door, Diradour built a space that houses a craft beer store specializing in filling growlers and, soon, a Starbucks.

Diradour and Scott Coleman, another developer active in the neighborhood, say development in the district has been spurred by a combination of the neighborhood’s location — convenient to both interstates, the Fan and the West End — and the availability of federal tax credits, which help fund the restoration of old buildings in historic districts.

The tax credits and what until the recent rehab boom was relatively cheap property meant that developers could take cool but young businesses and outfit them in “a primo location” Diradour says.

But for that to work, Coleman says, there had to be an innovative local business community from which to draw the kinds of tenants that have made the neighborhood desirable. And Richmond, he says, has fostered that.

“We’ve got really great local operators setting up, and it’s making Scott’s Addition the latest cool place to be,” Coleman says.

Among the home-grown businesses that have expanded into Scott’s Addition is Ardent, which first opened in a Church Hill garage. Now it inhabits a gritty, rehabbed industrial space on West Leigh Street with a large, pleasant deck seating that any bar would envy.

Tom Sullivan, the brewery’s co-owner, credits the craft operations that came before it for creating a path for its success. “It was easier to raise money and get investors to grow because we could point to the success of Legend and Hardywood,” he says.

Legend, in Manchester overlooking the James River, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery has thrived since opening in 2011 at the forefront of the recent resurgence in craft breweries.

On the restaurant side, among the first cutting-edge restaurants to open in Scott’s Addition was Lunch in 2012. Lyons opened the 25-seat restaurant with the intention of riding the new wave of up-the-ante restaurants that have earned the city’s food scene notice. He’s since expanded into an industrial space next door, opening a sister restaurant named Supper. Lyons attributes the scene’s growth to customer loyalty “to the boutique scene — the small, the kitschy, the local.”

And that, in turn, has drawn attention to the city from beyond its borders.

“Even my mom, when I went home for Christmas was like, ‘Oh, I read the top place to move on the East Coast is Richmond.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah — it is.’”

 

Ryan and Travis Croxton credit Jason Alley with helping them decide to locate Rappahannock at East Grace and North Second streets in 2012. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ryan and Travis Croxton credit Jason Alley with helping them decide to locate Rappahannock at East Grace and North Second streets in 2012.

The sidewalks of East Grace Street were crowded and many of the pedestrians were cranky on the November night that Food Network celebrity Alton Brown performed at the Carpenter Theatre. You were out of luck if you hadn’t made dinner reservations at one of the two restaurants down the block, Pasture and Rappahannock. The two brightly lit spaces acted like twin beacons in between the dark, empty storefronts lining the street.

It’s the kind of night that makes restaurant owners happy. And what makes them even happier on East Grace are the crowded nights when there isn’t a show at CenterStage.

It wasn’t always like that. Jason Alley, owner of Pasture, recalls how different those busy nights are from the ones in 2011, when he opened one of the first restaurants on a retail strip that had been mostly abandoned since the big department stores, Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, left in early 1990s.

Alley knew what he was getting into. When his first restaurant, Comfort, opened in 2002 on West Broad Street, the art scene there was in its infancy. His building was one of the few with the lights on after dark.

“For both restaurants, the first six months were a little touch and go,” he says. But on East Grace Street, the proximity of two hotels, plus the newly opened CenterStage, the Capitol, and a new residential development going in a few blocks away made Alley feel like Pasture was opening in an area that couldn’t be ignored for much longer.

He says he and his partner, Michele Jones, fell in love with the neighborhood. “When Ry [Marchant] bought the old Montaldo’s building and was looking for someone to go in on a restaurant with him,” Alley says — “we just jumped at it.”

Among those drawing diners to Grace Street are Jason Alley and Michele Jones, of Pasture, and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton of Rappahannock. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Among those drawing diners to Grace Street are Jason Alley and Michele Jones, of Pasture, and cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton of Rappahannock.

Amy Cabaniss echoes Alley. She plans to move her nearly 12-year-old Shockoe Bottom restaurant, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine, into the old Shield’s Shoes building this spring. She’d been searching for a new spot for five, maybe seven years. “I looked everywhere — high and low,” Cabaniss says. “I truly fell in love with this building.”

Rappahannock opened at East Grace and North Second streets in 2012 in the former Louisiana Flair space. Owners Ryan and Travis Croxton had a successful experience with their restaurant, Merroir, located on the Middle Peninsula in Topping. But they both live in the Richmond area and wanted to open a second restaurant in the city. They just hadn’t found the right location. What cinched the deal?

“It was Jason,” co-owner Travis Croxton says. “We checked in on him during construction [of Pasture] and he said there was place there for rent.”

“We worked him pretty hard,” Alley says of Croxton. “Density is a huge thing for restaurants.” Pasture began taking reservations simply because there was nowhere for people to go if the tables were full. Another restaurant nearby could only help both businesses flourish.

Things weren’t quite as successful at the 525 at Berry Burk, which opened cater-cornered from CenterStage. The seven-figure project, with backers Jim and Ted Ukrop, was a huge undertaking. But after being open nearly two years, it closed in April.

Perhaps that might have to do with something as simple as white tablecloths. “I don’t know if it works anymore,” Travis Croxton says. Diners are looking for a more casual experience with ingredient-driven food, he says. The more formal meal out is relegated to special occasions, and 525 at Berry Burk may have intimidated potential diners.

Or maybe the traffic just wasn’t enough — and a lot of buildings remain empty on East Grace. Alley and Croxton say they want to see a better retail mix. “In order for the residential to grow,” Alley says, “there needs to be more services.”

 

Among those tackling the challenge of getting fresh, healthy food into some Richmond neighborhoods is Dominic Barrett of Shalom Farms, at this stand in Creighton Court. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Among those tackling the challenge of getting fresh, healthy food into some Richmond neighborhoods is Dominic Barrett of Shalom Farms, at this stand in Creighton Court.

The neighborhood revitalization the city is celebrating has created awkward contrasts. Richmond’s poorest residents have watched some of the city’s most expensive restaurants spring up in their midst. The dichotomy isn’t lost on restaurateur Alley.

“My family was super, super poor,” he says, “and growing up, we had to use church food services, whatever was available. It’s kind of weird for me to sell a $12 hamburger. I struggle with it. My hope is that by revitalizing the neighborhood, restaurants will draw more services in general.”

In some neighborhoods, there is a narrow but deep gulf between those celebrating the city’s latest culinary successes and those for whom little seems to have improved.

But as the city works to address its 26-percent poverty rate, residents in neighborhoods where access to food is limited have seen improvements. Activists and nonprofit organizations are working to ensure they don’t get left further behind in 2015.

People took notice when Alicia and Lamont Hawkins opened Inner City Blues Takeout in Gilpin Court, a Richmond housing project that hadn’t had a restaurant nearby in more than a decade. “I think you need to bring things to the urban community,” Alicia Hawkins said.

Alicia and Lamont Hawkins weren’t able to keep their Inner City Blues open in Gilpin Court all year, but their second location, Carolina Bar B Que in Church Hill, is still turning out the smoked meat. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Alicia and Lamont Hawkins weren’t able to keep their Inner City Blues open in Gilpin Court all year, but their second location, Carolina Bar B Que in Church Hill, is still turning out the smoked meat.

Inner City Blues offered a full menu of soul food — pork, chicken, collard greens, macaroni, baked beans, string beans and barbecue. Despite a successful opening, its run was short-lived and the restaurant closed in December. But the Hawkinses cited a landlord dispute rather than an issue with the location, and moved their operation to an existing restaurant on Nine Mile Road, Carolina Bar B Que.

On the fresh produce front, two nonprofit farms that supply produce to some of the city’s most popular restaurants are expanding their efforts to get fresh, local vegetables into neighborhoods where they’re scarce.

Shalom Farms, a ministry of the United Methodist Church, opened farm markets in city housing projects, offering residents year-round access to produce. In Creighton Court, the organization worked directly with households to teach residents healthy ways to work the food into their diets.

Tricycle Gardens, which operates a farm in Manchester, expanded its healthy corner store initiative. The farm now stocks seven convenience stores with produce in neighborhoods where there are no full-service grocery stores. Last year it distributed about 60 pounds of produce per week and ran 45 cooking classes, health fairs and in-store tastings.

The organization’s executive director, Sally Schwitters, says she expects the city’s food scene to grow this year in a way that benefits all residents. “We really recognize that the food culture of Richmond is changing,” Schwitters says, “and we really believe that food brings people together like nothing else. We can use it to bridge our communities.” S

Correction: This story originally stated that the Indiegogo campaign benefiting Sub Rosa Bakery raised over $5,000. It raised more than $16,000. The Hill Cafe was sold to and reopened by Michelle Williams, Jared Golden and Ted Wallof in 2000, not 2001. Style regrets the errors.

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