East Main Street is a desolate stretch of road, at least as far as restaurants are concerned. While office buildings and their enormous parking garages dominate the landscape, the downtown core of Richmond has remained bereft of full-service restaurants that stay open past the crush of lunch-hour queues.
The local dining scene has seen the number of excellent restaurants increasing, but the financial district has remained overlooked and underserved. The longstanding success of Capital Ale House and the slow but steady growth of residential housing seem to indicate potential — something upon which newcomer Belle & James hopes to capitalize.
Situated in an easy-to-miss storefront on East Main Street between Seventh and Eighth, Belle & James occupies a narrow slice of its building. It maximizes the layout with a long bar running almost the length of the restaurant. Dark tones are offset by warm lighting that, despite the slick modern touches, creates a warm and welcoming space.
Belle & James seems eager to please. The interior design clearly tries to welcome just about any clientele. Out for a night on the town? Sit at the illuminated onyx bar and stare at the flashy tile backsplash at rows of high-end spirits. Fancy a casual alfresco early evening dinner with friends? Try the outdoor patio. First date? The wooden booths offer just the right amount of privacy without forcing romance on you. Somehow this combination works together without feeling forced or unnatural.
Come here for drinks. For the shy people who don’t like talking to their bartender, the craft cocktail menu is helpfully divided by liquor type, with cocktails made with, for example, different varieties of whiskey, sugar-based drinks such as rum or cachaca, or neutral spirits such as vodka and Belle Isle moonshine. But really, you should engage the bar staff, who not only can guide you to a new experience but also give you the back story on some of the more unusual ingredients.
At the bartender’s suggestion, I order the Graduate ($11), a playful take on a manhattan with Danish cherry liqueur in place of the traditional maraschino cherry and a splash of Ancho Reyes, a liqueur made from ancho chilies, adding a subtly spicy kick to the drink. The small selection of beer focuses mostly on local Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery selections.
The chef, Michael Crowley, most recently was at Max’s on Broad, and the menu is reminiscent of his old place, with American influences on European classics. Belle & James calls itself French-American, and its dishes seem to be classed-up riffs on everyday fare or simplified versions of fussy French classics. This meeting in the middle mostly works, with a variety of options in price and sophistication. And for the most part, everything is good, though disappointingly, few things are great.
French onion soup ($6) is a perfect example. Silky onions sit in a rich but somewhat unremarkable broth and are topped by Gruyère and bread that, sadly, has been completely drowned by liquid by the time it reaches me and has no crunch left. I devour the bowl on a cold day, but am unsure whether I’d make a trip back on another wintry day for it. The kale and Brussels salad ($8) is a plate full of raw vegetables, broken up by a few almonds and some shaved Parmesan. The maple-tahini dressing is packed with unadvertised red pepper, which I think adds a much-needed flavor boost, but leaves my spice-hating dining companion surprised and disappointed. Pimiento beignets ($6) suffer from too much breading and are left uneaten.
Sandwiches are generally a good bet, and I recommend the Howard ($12), a fancy take on a french dip. Roast beef is replaced by duck confit, combined with melted cheese curds and mushrooms, and served on buttered grilled bread. The disappointment comes with the maple jus, a buttery sweet dipping sauce that would go better with chicken and waffles than paired with a sandwich where it takes the richness over the top.
A few dishes soar, particularly simpler ones such as the fried calamari appetizer ($12), perfectly tender and accompanied by a pair of house-made sauces. The goat cheese and cauliflower gratin ($17), a nod to vegetarians on a meat and seafood heavy list of entrees, is creamy perfection served in a personal-sized cast iron skillet with a side of crusty baguette.
Belle & James fills a much needed hole in a part of town that has had few options until now. At publication time, an updated menu was getting slotted into place. If it’s going to remain a viable pioneer continuing to refine the menu will ensure a well-deserved longevity. S
Belle & James
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
700 E. Main St