I hadn't been to Dot's Back Inn for several years, having vowed never to return because of the cigarette smoke that permeated the place. Now, thanks to the smoking ban that went into effect in the winter, I'm back to Dot's, and what a wonderful reunion it is.
Dot's is an ideal neighborhood restaurant, a down-home place with a classically trained uptown chef. It still looks like a joint but you won't say that after you've tasted the food, prepared by chef and owner Jimmy Tsamouras.
The basic menu that built a loyal following for decades remains: burgers, steak and cheese subs, pork barbecue, chili, soup and a day-long limited breakfast. But a closer look hints that this isn't just another Joe's Inn or Karen's Diner — not that there's anything wrong with those standbys. Dot's black bean burger, for example, is slathered with pesto, and chicken Smithfield swims in a brandy-cream sauce.
Further clues that this North Side institution isn't your ordinary dive are quotes on the wall and menu from Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Cervantes. The clincher is revealed in the daily specials. A sautAced flounder prepared with a hint of curry, accompanied by acorn squash and broccoli, would do a white-tablecloth restaurant proud. Other evenings diners may encounter an eight-bone rack of lamb, a pound and a half steamed lobster, a dozen fried oysters, filet mignon or steak Diane. Tsamouras is able to keep even the costliest specials priced less than $20 because of low overhead, including no tablecloths and tin utensils.
“I wanted this to be truly a dive with great food,” Tsamouras says. That goal has been acknowledged by not only loyal customers, but also cable-TV food shows. A poster near the bar is signed by Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods,” and Guy Fieri of the Food Network's “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” raved about the chicken MacArthur and spaghetti tossed with feta, tomatoes, chopped scallions and Parmesan.
Lunch can also be special, as with a too-big-for-the-plate rosemary barbecue pork chop, piled high on a kaiser roll with apple slaw and a heaping side of red beans and rice with bacon. A grilled chicken salad is lifted beyond ordinary with a homemade poppy-seed dressing. Surprisingly, the one dish that didn't stand out during three recent visits was meatloaf, which, while gigantic, was a bit on the dry side. Also a bit dry, the mixed fruit bread pudding can't stand up to the homemade pies, such as the chocolate fudge piled high with whipped cream.
Tsamouras, 40, grew up in Richmond but moved to Williamsburg at age 16 when his family bought the College Deli there. After high school his father suggested he attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “I never knew a school like that existed,” he says. His cooking experience had been limited to subs and pizza.
During summers the institute sent him to resorts in Hawaii and Arizona, and he worked weekends in Manhattan. After graduation he returned to Richmond and worked at Travelers, the Country Club of Virginia and the John Marshall Hotel. In the fall of 2001 he bought Southern Culture in the Fan, which was destroyed by a fire in 2004. Next he helped a friend open 3 Monkeys and began wooing the owner of Dot's, Frances “Cookie” Giannini, who named the restaurant for her Aunt Dot, a waitress in Richmond for more than half a century. Giannini sold Dot's in 2007 after Tsamouras promised not to change the place.
He didn't, except for expanding the menu. White lights droop like icicles over the nine-stool bar, framed by muted TVs that compete with a sound system. Wall decorations include a framed Dot's T-shirt, '50s vintage photos, a large American flag and adages, “Thank you for not whining” and “If you are drinking to forget, please pay in advance.”
Emily, Janet, Fay and the other veteran waitresses don't offer a check — you tell them at the cash register what you had. Becoming smoke-free chased away some of the regulars from the bar, cutting income from alcohol, but it also meant fewer patrons lingering until closing time, making it easier to clean up and go home earlier. Food sales have increased while families have more than replaced the drinkers.
One regular who didn't go away was Cookie herself, who became a regular customer, and works behind the bar two days a week.
Dot's Back Inn
4030 MacArthur Ave.
Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. - midnight; Sunday 10 a.m.- 3 p.m.