In a city oozing with historic significance around every corner, it’s still surprising when a restaurant can play the history card.
Richmond, meet Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smoke House. During the early part of the last century, the area spanning the entire block of 100 E. Leigh St. was dubbed Jackson’s Pleasure Garden. Known as a roomy beer garden — all the houses’ backyards were connected — it was popular for beer, the small smokers set up in every corner and impromptu entertainment. Legend has it Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced there.
Entertainment aside, Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smoke House stays pretty faithful to its past. The restaurant is contained in a series of connected brick buildings, including a roofless one transformed into a charming patio and mezzanine. Black-and-white photographs of 19th-century smoke houses from Sherwood Forest and Shirley Plantation line the wall. Vintage soul music provides a fitting and familiar soundtrack.
Taking the beer garden part of its name seriously, likely the first question you’ll get from your server is whether you’d like to hear about the 18 beers on tap ($5-$8.50), 17 bottled beers ($5-$8) and 750-milliliter bottles ($17-22). Cocktails ($8-$13) such as the Maggie-Walker-themed Bank on It — salute local history.
Before even placing your order, a server brings samples of four house-made sauces — sweet, spicy, spicy and sweet, and smoky — so you can choose which will accompany your food. Call me Goldilocks, but the sweet, spicy and smoky all register as too one-note, making the sweet and spicy just right.
You can’t go wrong starting a meal with smokehouse wings ($9 small, $11 large) given the deeply smoky essence and nicely crisped skin. In search of a rib-sticking meal? Slow-simmered Jackson’s stew ($9) is loaded with chicken, sausage, corn, onion, peppers, celery and garlic over rice, garnished with a grilled cheese sandwich half and boldly-flavored-enough to appeal to heat seekers.
When only a sandwich will do, you can count on ample size, solid execution and an escort of some of the tastiest fries in town. Seasoned with a house rub before smoking, pulled pork ($10) is stacked high and thick with a crown of coleslaw for crunch. Also showing a commitment to good taste is the smoked turkey sausage sandwich ($10), dripping with grilled red and green peppers, onions and a blanket of provolone.
This being a smokehouse, there are St. Louis ribs ($17 half rack, $25 full) that measure up on every front except the server’s knowledge of what they are. When my companion asks, our eager server guesses they’re probably from St. Louis — actually, they’re simply spare ribs with the brisket bone removed and are known to be meatier with more fat. Translation: finger-licking good with a wet nap for good measure.
For those who measure pit masters’ worth by their beef, 14-hour slow-smoked brisket ($14 1/4 pound, $18 1/2 pound) delivers with tender slices and subtle smokiness, ready for whichever sauce tickles your fancy.
Simple as it may be, it’s hard not to fall for a quarter-smoked chicken ($14 dark meat, $15 white meat) appealingly juicy beneath its seasoned golden-brown skin. Like other entrees, it comes with a choice of two sides, all of which show loving attention from the kitchen. Fried okra arrives lightly breaded and baked beans skew sweet with bits of onion and red pepper, while crumb-topped mac ’n’ cheese and collard greens would satisfy Grandma.
Jackson’s kitchen gets a lot right, but drops the ball when I order the burnt ends salad ($11) — burnt ends are the crispy bits from the edges of smoked meat. The menu clearly states its availability is limited, but our server assures us they have the salad. What shows up is neither burnt nor ends. Instead of the expected blackened and crackling meat, a wedge of iceberg lettuce, seasoned tomatoes and bacon, my bowl holds mixed greens, plain tomatoes and square chunks of pink pork. Nothing about it works.
Servers could also use other schooling. When a customer asks if a beer is hoppy, one responds, “No, it’s a draft beer.” Asking why music isn’t playing in our dining room, our server shrugs it off. “Maybe the speaker’s broken.” And when most of my burnt ends salad remains, no one asks why.
Still, with a little server training, Jackson’s could be another fine reason to visit historic Jackson Ward. S
Jackson’s Beer Garden and Smoke House
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m.-midnight
538 N. Second St.