Walk through the doors of Grandstaff & Stein Booksellers, and you come upon a surprisingly small room with wall-to-wall bookshelves, each filled with volumes that haven’t been bestsellers in decades.
It would be disappointing if you were looking for that rare find — a vibrant, locally owned bookstore. But if you know you’re walking into the modern incarnation of a speak-easy, the conceit is charming. And when the wall behind the host slides open, you’re transported into a different world.
The semisecret entrance reveals exposed brick, old-style light bulbs and dark wood. Ragtime music and the bartenders’ old-timey outfits complete the scene. The cumulative effect evokes a dimly lighted, secretive, Prohibition-era drinking hideaway. And drinking is what you should do here.
Cocktails ($11) are the house specialty, as they should be at a speak-easy, with both well-made classics and more inventive choices. A New Orleans specialty, the sazerac, is made with a traditional absinthe rinse and a boozy rye as the mainstay liquor. The Bees Knees — Tanqueray gin, lemon and honey — tastes light and refreshing but packs a deceptive punch. From Moscow mules to the old fashioned, the bartenders make terrific drinks suited to any taste and gladly adjust liquors to fit your preference and wallet. A full page of bottle choices invites you to make your own cocktail, if you’re so inclined.
Besides the drinks and décor, Grandstaff’s employees make the experience worthwhile. A staff member waits on the other side of the bookcase to guide you to your next handler. Bartenders query your drink preferences and gently suggest new tastes to explore. Servers are friendly and attentive, without being overbearing, though most could brush up on the details of the menu. Nevertheless, when a dish arrives poorly prepared on one visit, the server apologizes and quickly brings a replacement.
Food disappoints. Hors d’oeuvres dominate, with more than a dozen options spanning the culinary spectrum from popcorn ($4) and cheese and crackers ($7) to shrimp cocktail ($13) and oysters Rockefeller ($16). Perhaps these are meant to evoke simpler times, probably 1920s classics, but dishes such as duck wings and pork belly disrupt that theme, and it feels as if the menu is a hodgepodge of mostly uninspired and underdescribed options.
In a town full of amazing oysters, these are surprisingly fishy and unappetizing, with bacon, spinach and Parmesan distracting from, rather than complementing, the shellfish. Deviled eggs ($4) aren’t firm enough — with whites that could have cooked for another minute and a filling with too much mayonnaise. Pickles and olives ($10), accompanied by feta and crostini, are a fantastic salty snack to soak up the alcohol, but they’re store-bought, according to the server, which always makes me wonder why I should bother to order them out.
Duck wings ($12) are the best thing I eat on one visit, but the Korean-style, salty-sweet glaze is overwhelmed by salt on another. Mussels ($14) are steamed in a delicious, spicy, sage-heavy broth that I find myself eating with a spoon, but ours are served with about a quarter of the shellfish unopened. Not auspicious.
Entrees aren’t better than the starters. Pan-seared grouper ($18) is left uneaten by my table. Rubbery fish is served with Brussels sprouts that defy the menu’s description of crispy. Pork belly is notoriously easy to bungle, and sadly that happens here. The braised version ($15), topped with a blueberry-barbecue sauce, comes in large pieces without fully rendered fat. The flavors are right, with mildly fruity and tangy sauce cutting through the richness of the pork, but sauce can’t cover the improperly cooked meat. A vegetarian potpie ($11) arrives as a creamy comfort-food stew of carrots. While I hope for a handmade, flaky crust, the puff pastry placed atop the filling disappoints.
It’s a shame that Virginia still bans bars and requires food to be sold at any establishment serving more than beer. Because Grandstaff & Stein is a fantastic bar. Ambiance, endless liquor choices, knowledgeable bartenders, and a theme proven successful in plenty of other American cities are strong pillars on which to build a great experience. The focus on simple hors d’oeuvres is smart, emphasizing snacks to complement the alcohol. But the quality of the food must improve to match the elegance of the setting and the fierce competition in the Richmond restaurant scene. There simply are too many other places to get great food to accompany your craft cocktail. S
Grandstaff & Stein Booksellers
2113 E. Main St.
Mondays-Thursdays 5 p.m.-midnight; Fridays and Saturdays 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.