Change is the new tradition in the Richmond restaurant scene. Openings, closings, new chefs and locations are breathlessly covered by multiple media outlets. In such an ever-evolving landscape, older restaurants — even with well-established reputations — can get elbowed aside. To keep up with Richmond diners' quest for the novel, several Richmond restaurant staples have overhauled their menus. Here are three:
Helen's has managed to stick around through many reinventions, and its neon sign is a familiar sight to any Fan resident.
The new menu is divided, as so many now are, by size. Snacks and starters share a menu with a variety of main courses. It's a smart trend on which to capitalize when you're at the crossroads of the Fan's bar scene. Most dishes are a slight upgrade on familiar classics. Mac 'n' cheese ($15) features asparagus, bacon and lump crabmeat. Calamari ($10) is sautéed rather than fried, accompanied by gremolata butter, while steamed mussels ($11) are served in a Pernod broth.
Main courses feature a few burgers and a decent selection of seafood, vegetarian and meat options. The scallops ($27) are pan-seared with a perfectly crispy exterior and accompanied by the most geometrical of vegetables, the fractallike Romanesco broccoli, as well as gremolata and pistachios. Despite its nice balance of texture and flavor, it needs salt. The doughy, buttery potato gnocchi ($17) taste rich and comforting, and are accompanied by vegetables and a flavorful dill pesto.
With many entrées pushing the $30 mark, Helen's places itself in league with Richmond's best restaurants. While the menu improvements are solid, if unremarkable, this classic needs to continue stepping up its game to compete for Richmond diners' attention.
2527 W. Main St.
Mondays-Fridays 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturdays 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30 p.m.- 2 a.m.; Sundays 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Star-lite Dining and Lounge
Across the street from Helen's stands Star-lite Dining and Lounge, a classic Fan bar that, let's be honest, has never been known for its food. But its sister restaurants, Lunch and Supper, quietly have been establishing a solid reputation in Scott's Addition.
The new menu at Star-lite now includes many of the house-smoked and cured meats from Supper, without losing its bar-food focus. Common appetizers are tweaked so they aren't too basic — crab cakes ($12) are wrapped in bacon, smothered fries ($9) are topped with pulled pork and a bacon-cheese sauce, and hush puppies ($8) are dressed up with — you guessed it, bacon — as well as cheddar and honey butter sauce.
It isn't all as over-the-top, Guy-Fieri-style as these selections make it seem, though most dishes seem to be going for that soak-up-the-alcohol kind of approach. You can get your burger topped with onion rings, or a fried egg or even brie and french country gravy. I try the Robinson Reuben press ($9), with pastrami smoked at Supper, and topped, somewhat oddly, with cole slaw and blue cheese dressing. Purity aside, it's a great accompaniment to my pint of IPA.
2600 W. Main St.
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m.-2 a.m.
Strawberry Street Café
A meal at Strawberry Street Café used to be like visiting your aunt who serves family recipes that have stayed the same for decades in a kitsch-filled house. Quiche, soup and a salad bar, however, have a tough time competing in an innovative dining scene that's garnering national attention. A menu overhaul seems natural.
Of these three restaurants, however, Strawberry Street's changes are the least dramatic. Most of the old favorites, from the Chesapeake crab and swiss quiche to the bathtub salad bar are still around. But a standard diner breakfast is now offered seven days a week, and a few Tex-Mex dishes are clearly new options during lunch and dinner.
I try the grilled mahi tacos ($12), which are what you might expect from a classic American restaurant trying halfheartedly to branch out into new culinary territory. They're perfectly reasonable and yet underwhelming, with well-cooked tender fish topped by slaw and a slightly tangy cilantro-lime sour cream. I'm happy to report that the crab quiche ($9.50) is still the same recipe and packed with meat. Of all the restaurants I've visited in Richmond, the crowd here is the most diverse: black, white, young, old, gay and straight. Everyone seems to agree that Strawberry Street continues to be worth a visit, even though — or maybe because — the food isn't breaking new culinary ground. S
421 Strawberry St.
Mondays-Fridays 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m.-9 p.m.