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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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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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