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The Best of Richmond 2001

Best martini

Few drinks are considered more sophisticated than the martini. According to readers, the Patina Grill mixes the best in town. This smart restaurant, located in the far West End in Wellesley, has interiors as well as a menu that might best be described as Italo-Asian fusion. Bartender Mark Walsh was on duty the recent evening we saddled up at the copper-clad bar. From our seat we had a clear view of the semi-open kitchen. After determining we wanted a vodka martini — straight-up, with a twist of lemon — Walsh offered a selection of four top-drawer vodkas. The drink arrived in a classic but simple martini glass. As he had promised, it was as dry as a cocktail can be and still be liquid. While Patina takes its basic martinis seriously, it can also get creative, offering such variations on the theme as a chocolate martini, a martini with a garnishing olive that has been stuffed with blue cheese, and special drinks for holidays. Patina concocted a pinkish martini they dubbed "Hearts of Love" for Valentine's Day.

The martinis at Cabo's took second place. But be careful balancing that spindly stemmed martini glass amid the jostling: Many evenings, especially when there's live music, the bar area is so packed with well-turned-out patrons you'd do well to hang onto a standard beer bottle.

The martinis at Pure Pleasure, a "gentleman's club," took a close third place. Careful, though: If you order the drink the dancers might mark you as a sophisticated type. Remember that song from "Sweet Charity": "Hey big spender, spend a little time with me."

Best bar or restaurant for the under-35 crowd

According to our readers the best bar of choice for anyone younger than 35 is Main Street Beer Co. "Obviously we have good beer," says general manager Rob Cabaniss, "and good parking." Indeed they do have good parking. His father, Bob, owns the brewpub, which makes Fan Lager, Work Beer and about six seasonals. Main Street also has live music on Wednesdays. The restaurant might have received a boost from its recent St. Patrick's Day festival. It also puts on the popular Mid-Summer Music Festival in August.

T.G.I. Friday's came in second.

Best bar or restaurant for the over-35 crowd

Like it or not, being 35 or older means you are on the way to estrangement from places like Cafine's, no matter how much ecstasy you take. Maybe you should try Cabo's, which possibly took first place because of the five nights of live music it offers every week. Regulars like Janet Martin and Adrian Duke play everything from folk and jazz to Motown. Owner Amy Cabaniss says that Steve Basset's regular Friday night gig is the most popular.

The Tobacco Company took second. Some smart-alecky readers wrote in Westminster-Canterbury.

Best bar or restaurant for a group of eight or more

Cabo's wasn't nearly big enough to be considered for this category when it was located on Main Street. That's a big reason Amy Cabaniss and her husband, and partner, Bill, moved their popular restaurant across the Fan from Main to Broad. "We have a spacious restaurant," Amy Cabaniss says. "The kind of restaurant we have encourages a whole night out." Cabo's is a good place to look for dinner and entertainment under the same roof. Plus they have a private room for large groups. It's away from the music to provide romance or just plain relaxation.

Bottoms Up in Shockoe Bottom and the Ironhorse Restaurant in Ashland tied for second.

Best waiter/waitress

You know you're good when people ask not what's on the menu, but who is serving it. "People are always asking for Kevin Evans," says Cabo's general manager Susan Jenkins. "He's very professional but not stuffy." Evans (pictured) was voted the best waiter in Richmond and his sunny personality and knowledge about wine and food may be a big part of it. But it can't be all. Even Jenkins is at a loss to say what makes Evans stand above all others at the table. Great service, like great food, defies definition. Salud, Kevin!

The waitstaff at Kuba Kuba was also voted a Richmond favorite. Owner Manny Mendez credits the good service to the fact that no one works at the restaurant full-time (except him), so it's a fun job for the 18 waitstaff who work maybe one or two shifts a week. Seventy percent of his staff has been with him since he opened three years ago, and he's got a waiting list of people just dying to work. "It's like our social hour," says Kuba Kuba waitress Robin Grant. "All our friends are here. The restaurant is like our own personal kitchen and dining room — and our customers', too." The waitstaff treats even strangers as friends. Try to order a second glass of their iced-espresso-and-condensed-milk concoction and you'll have to fight for it. Friends don't let friends get buzzed on caffeine, even if it is only noon. Sheesh.

Joe's Inn and Buckhead's also received a round of applause for their stellar staffs.

Best wine list

Buckhead's is the toast of the town in this category. And with a menu consisting of one page of food selections and eight pages of wine selections, it's no wonder. These people know wine. In fact, wine director Bob Talbot was in Italy shopping and sampling wines to bring back to Richmond when we called. Banquet director Terri Lee, who was definitely not bitter that Bob was in Italy touring vineyards and she was in Richmond answering the phone, explained that Buckhead's has a selection of more than 900 different kinds of wines in-house, with access to thousands of others from their storehouse. Cabo's also received a number of votes for those who enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner.

Best lunch without a wait

A long time ago, James Ukrop pioneered selling pre-made meals in his supermarkets, and the chain has continued leading the way. Now Ukrop's has put cafes inside grocery stores. What kind of city is this, ask out-of-towners, that has its best meals sold out of a refrigerated case in the supermarket? It's a Ukrop's town, and don't you forget it.

But this year Ukrop's is tied with another local pioneer, Arby's. That's yet another reason eating quickly can make Richmonders proud. A few years ago Richmond-area Arby's magnate Richard Ripp reinvented his formerly dowdy Arby's outlets as yuppie fast-food palaces, complete with rotisserie chickens and panini. Now that concept is nationwide. The lesson: Richmond knows how to make good food sell fast. Now get moving.

Best limeade

Richmonders suck up close to 4,000 limes in cracked ice and sugar water at Bill's Barbecue every day during the summer. That's a lot of juice, and you can hear those straws hit bottom in the middle of July. What's the secret to the lime juice readers voted the best in the city? "Oh, I can't tell you. That's a Bill's secret," hedges Bill's Barbecue president Rhoda Elliott. She will tell you that each glass of limeade is hand-squeezed from hand-washed and hand-cut fresh Florida limes. "You need to have strong hands for this job," she says. "You can get blisters on your hands from all that squeezing." Squeeze on, we say.

Philips's Continental Lounge is a runner-up to quenching Richmond's thirst. They make limeades to order at Phil's. Sweet or sour, you tell them, as they run through 140 pounds of green limes a week. Pucker up, Richmond. Time to slurp.

Best restaurant bread basket

It's no surprise that Baker's Crust was your choice for best bread basket. How else to explain the jam-packed parking lot and long lines snaking out of the popular Carytown restaurant at all hours of the day and night?

Why else would a perfectly sensible person wait 45 minutes for the chance to partake of a turkey sandwich? It's the bread. Fresh, hand-crafted, European style, crusty-on-the outside, fluffy-on-the inside, honest-to-goodness, bona fide bread available in a mind-boggling variety of styles and flavors: tomato-basil, multi-grain, fruit and nut, baguette, rustic sourdough, caraway rye, Italian, cinnamon, roasted garlic, challah, brioche, red pepper scallion and parmesan, caraway rye, jalepeno and cheddar, and semolina — to name a few. Then there's those soups and salads served not in a bowl, but a boule, a round loaf of French countryside sourdough bread. Almost as much fun to say as to eat.

Coming in second is Julian's, the venerable Richmond family restaurant whose pre-meal bread basket contains not only French bread, but cinnamon bread, too.

Best politically/racially charged sandwich: The Ghetto Burger

It's tasty! It's man-sized! It's offensive! A Richmond restaurant garnered national and even international attention over the name of a sandwich made in loving tribute to the owner's mother. Call us out-of-touch white people, but we don't see the big deal. The allegedly pejorative "ghetto" is the word of the moment, as in "ghetto chic," "ghetto fabulous." Ghetto Burger has that same retro funkiness. Plus, it comes with fries.

Best new restaurant

The White Dog is tiny. So it's kind of surprising that the basement restaurant received enough attention to make No. 1 in this category. Barry Pruitt and his wife, Roslyn, began serving dinner here on the corner of Main and Stafford streets in March 2000.

Named after Pruitt's dog Max, the White Dog makes for an inmate destination, a place to hear jazz over a bottle of red, in a dark, candlelit booth. Pruitt thinks they've done well because of the menu, too, which sticks with real restaurant food, as opposed to bar food. "It's entrees, not sandwiches, basically that's what it comes down to," Pruitt says. Lamb chops instead of nachos.

The Big Easy, which opened one year ago this month in the West End and placed first in our Best Of issue last year, tied for second with Star-lite, recently opened in the Fan.

Best restaurant to hear Richmond gossip

We once sat at Sidewalk Café with a defense attorney who, over large bites of a sandwich, plied us with tales of a client's grisly murders. In the middle of his anecdote, which was appalling enough to make us put our cheeseburger down, we noticed that the other lunch patrons at the tables around us were being awfully quiet. Sidewalk is one of those dark Fan joints with humongous burgers where the tables are snuggled up against each other so close you can hear your neighbor's watch. It's also a gathering place for Fan residents of all sorts, from college preppies to area entrepreneurs to lawyers. That combination, and the tongue-loosening power of bottled beer, probably accounts for its selection as the city's best place to overhear gossip. Runners-up: Davis & Main, Du Jour and T.G.I. Friday's.

Best hometown brew

It takes a long time for something to become legendary in Richmond, but Legend Brewing Co. (pictured) is well on its way. Once again a reader favorite, the microbrewery has its brown ale and golden I.P.A. on all the right shelves and taps in Richmond, and also offers a great twilight view of the city from its deck on Seventh Street. The frosty heads at Main Street Beer Co. also got a lot of nods.

Best business lunch

The Tobacco Company, the granddaddy of Shockoe Slip dining, is your favorite place for lunch when the company's buying. Smart service and a varied menu ensure Richmond's wheelers and dealers can get a table, a meal that suits any taste and get on to their way before the stock market takes another stomach-clutching swing. Neighboring Sam Miller's also props up many an expense report around Richmond.

Best restaurant bathroom

Sticky-floored, towel-on-a-roll unisex bathrooms in impossibly cramped back hallways used to be the norm in Fan District restaurants, and many a patron would wait in misery rather than line up to venture in. But vanity, thy name is Main Street Beer Co., where men and women will never look better than in luxurious glass-and-granite restrooms with flattering lighting and stylish details. Even a night of swilling can't take away the luster, though there may be a reality check when streetlights cast their less-forgiving glare.

Lemaire, the Jefferson Hotel's five-star restaurant, takes second place in this category. While the restrooms here and in the rotunda are traditional rather than trendy, they're hushed and clubby with actual mahogany-paneled doors instead of stalls and soft-toned, circular layouts that are generous and sparkling. Monogrammed hand towels and perfumed lotions add the finishing touches, proving that five-star hotels get that way by attending to guest-pleasing details.

Best doughnut

The South's revenge won this category by a landslide, an avalanche, a typhoon. No surprise. Krispy Kreme doughnuts melt in the mouth and in the hand. Hot out of the oil or cooled in one of those big white boxes, Krispy Kreme's little rings of deep-fried joy (pictured) have invaded the North, conquered Wall Street and the rest of New York and now are fattening up all America. We love them, don't get us wrong — they're way, way better than previous Best of Richmond winner Dunkin' Donuts' cakey doughnuts. And we would be the last to reprimand our Beloved Readers for anything. But!

There's a little homegrown shop you seem to have overlooked: Rainbow Donuts on Broad Street near the Children's Museum makes doughnuts that, to us at least, are even better. Try them. Better yet, buy a dozen Krispy Kremes and another dozen from Rainbow. You can't go wrong. And your waistline will love you.

Best place to take your parents

If you knew the work involved in setting up Sunday brunch at The Jefferson Hotel, you — or your parents — would tip your server more generously. The TJ's staff of 15 arrives between 6 and 7:30 a.m. to transform the rotunda, mezzanine and lounge into something like the impeccable dining room of the Titanic — minus the tragic immersion, of course. This isn't buffet fare, folks. And you've tasted it. It's why you've judiciously chosen The Jefferson as the best place in Richmond to take your parents. The special eggs Benedict and bananas Foster alone are worth the $29.95-per-person price. Throw in about 50 other savories, the Skip Gailes jazz trio, two glasses of complimentary champagne and the rest of the day with your folks or in-laws feels like a Jimmy Buffet concert. It's so breezy you'd gladly pay more. And you will: In June the hotel expects to raise the price by about $4.

If the price tag deflates your purse but not your appetite, check out your second choice for best parental entertainment, Strawberry Street Café. It's a perennial first-meal-in-the-Fan site. Maybe it's the bathtub.

AND FINALLY … Best scandal

You just can't get enough of the tough-talking, wing-hair-wearing, South Side-power Councilwoman Reva Trammell. But do we really have to go back over the details of Trammell's oft-reported, scandal-filled year? Here's a Cliff's Notes version: Late night. Police car. Usually-covered-by-clothing mole. "Just friends." "Direct order." City employees. Michael Morchower. "No comment." House-sitting. Vindication. Jerry Springerlike City Council meeting. Yelling at the mayor.

We love Reva.

And in second place, there's the rumor that has become legend. Weeks after Style Weekly detailed the rumor's origins and questioned its validity, the newsroom still gets phone calls that begin, "Have you heard?" Yes! So has everybody else. As it is told — at cocktail parties and in the Capitol — the Guv has been having an affair with: a) a legislator, b) an aide, or c) a lobbyist. Roxanne has moved out of the mansion and into: a) the Gilmore's former residence, b) novelist Patricia Cornwell's house, or c) the carriage house beside the mansion. And the whole thing is very indiscreet. Oh yeah? Then why won't anyone come forward with proof?

Best-kept secret in Richmond

For the winner in this category, read the second-place winner in Best Scandal, above. Clearly, Gilmore's alleged inamorata is hardly appropriate for this category. Enough said about that.

Curiously, second place goes to the Canal Walk. This is a secret? Presumably our intrepid readers mean that despite all the talk about riverfront development, etc., not enough people really know how much fun there is to be had at the canal. Well, consider yourself informed.

Best thing we should have asked

Best local band, you said. Good idea. Why don't you send us your nominations?

Second place is a tie: best activities for seniors and best place to live. The votes for best seniors' activities would be interesting, no doubt. But we're especially intrigued by the possibility of fisticuffs that would ensue with the best-place-to-live competion. Just wait till next year.

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