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City Bar & Rotisserie, with a traditional look and classic dishes, gives an old landmark new life.

Born Again

Open only since June, City Bar & Rotisserie looks and feels like a Richmond institution. The landmark building that once housed the Railroad YMCA, after sitting empty for 30 years, has come to life again. Michael Ripp, who brought us the popular theme-based Havana '59 and the short-lived, gimmicky Chico's Mansion (both in Shockoe Bottom), has delivered a no-nonsense establishment that should light up that important corner in the Bottom for a long time.

The Railroad Y, built to lodge and entertain (wholesomely) railroad crews from Main Street Station next door, was constructed in 1907. Part of the success of the new venture is that the restaurant looks original to the period. The large L-shaped dining area with its heavy, dark-wood decoration, vintage-style lighting fixtures, extensive use of marble and scatter of Oriental rugs, makes for a peaceful, traditional look — as if it has been there from the beginning.

Not only is City Bar pleasant and comfortable, the food is also very good. And the best place to start is at the bar — the raw bar. They're serious about oysters. The server's assurance of their impeccable freshness was all I needed to try two kinds — from the Oregon coast and Maine. They were indeed superb: cold, briny and delicate. More than a dozen different kinds are available, probably not all at the same time. Oysters are available individually ($1.25 - $2), as a sampler ($23.50) with several dipping sauces called mignonettes, or in flights accompanied by wines ($19.25 - $20.75). For a richer palate (and deeper pockets), four fresh caviars are offered (from $90 an ounce).

The entrees ($15.95 - $32.95) are traditional too. The accompaniments, fussy in the description (a "sherry gastrique"?), are less obvious in the presentation. According to the menu, the beef is dry-aged 49 days and is featured as roasted prime rib. The eponymous rotisserie is not in physical evidence, but several items of the menu are cooked on it. The leg of lamb so cooked is excellent — beautifully rosy and succulent. With peas and roasted potatoes, it is better than that in a London chophouse and there's no jet lag. A loin of monkfish, firm of flesh and usually rather dull, is cooked in a bacon wrap, a play on the old hors d'oeuvres favorite. Paired with lentils and a dose of that sherry gastrique, it is a hearty and satisfying dish for an early fall evening.

When you're on a roll, you keep eating. I was very tempted to finish with a cheese plate ($8.95), mainly because I am so glad to see them appearing again, but we opted for the more popular desserts. Creme brulee seems to grace most menus these days, but this version is one of the better I've tried — warm on top from the last-minute torching, rich and creamy underneath with just a hint of chill at the bottom. And on the other side of the table, a peach-blueberry cobbler disappeared with several sighs of contentment.

There's a long wine list with interesting wines and fair prices. Our server was attentive, informed and paced our dinner perfectly.

The Shockoe Bottom dining scene has been rather erratic with many openings and closings. This visit to City Bar & Rotisserie suggests a winner. A wonderful old landmark has been given new life, and we can have a delightful time with good food in a pleasing atmosphere. It's worth the trip.

City Bar & Rotisserie
1548 Main St.
Lunch: Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday - Thursday 5 - 11p.m.;
Friday - Saturday 5 - Midnight

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