Take a neighborhood where bars and clubs predominate, where front windows are frequently covered and where many storefronts have a shuttered look from day to night. Into this unlikely setting, drop a cheerful blue and white corner restaurant with large windows that provide a well-lighted glimpse into what might be another era. The first thing that comes to mind is Edward Hopper's classic diner painting, "Nighthawks," with far sunnier-looking people inside.
Sweet Teas Southern Cuisine is a downright charming addition to Shockoe Bottom. The front door is flanked by potted plants and a chalkboard welcoming guests. Step inside and you'll find a harp and fringed boudoir chair gracing the entryway. But this is no mere set dressing; my server says the place recently had a woman in who asked to play the harp, delighting customers and staff alike. But there's no pretension here.
Plastic-coated menus and roll-ups sit waiting on six four-top tables and at the nine bar seats. Two big screens over the bar are the only jarring note in an otherwise delightful dining room. Blue mason jars hold extra napkins and cube vases of fresh flowers are everywhere. Each time a customer walks through the door, the owner or a server sings out over the smooth jazz, "Welcome to Sweet Teas" as if they haven't already said it dozens of times today.
Bar offerings include beer and wine because, my server says, the owner decided not to carry liquor. Nine beers ($4-$5) made the list, including Legend Brown Ale ($4.50) and Devils Backbone Vienna Lager ($5). The wine list ($8-$10 glass/$32-$40 bottle) also nods to Virginia with Barboursville and Williamsburg wineries. But the star of the beverage menu is the restaurant's sweet teas — and the peach tea is loaded with slices of fresh, not canned, peaches.
The menu is very Southern traditional so this isn't a place to try to eat light or healthy. You'd be remiss if you didn't start with the hand-battered onion rings ($5.99), truly the real deal. An irregular-looking mess, unlike the perfection of frozen rings, they arrive almost too hot to handle, but burned fingers are worth the satisfying crunch that yields to sweet onion slices inside. For heartier appetites, the heat of six deep-fried buffalo wings ($6.99) coated in house-made sauce makes for a satisfyingly spicy way to begin a meal.
Chicken and waffle ($10.99), the top seller, brings two overly crispy wings, but with enough syrup that no one really minds. Two slices of big Ma's meatloaf smothered in gravy ($10.99) are classically flavored with onion, and both the table of firemen nearby and the worker bees behind me are talking about needing a nap after eating it. Butterfly fried shrimp ($13.99) benefits from being hand-battered, while big crab cakes ($15.99) arrive unexpectedly deep-fried. When I ask, I'm told its standard preparation is pan-seared. Rookie mistake, perhaps, but next time I'll be sure to specify. Advertised as baked low and slow, the meat of barbecue spare ribs ($14.99) delectably falls off the bone but is oversauced, an issue only because the cloying sauce tastes bottled.
Sides ($3) shine, and two come with all meals except the chicken and waffle. Macaroni and cheese is eggy and densely cheesy, MiMa's collards taste of greens and not just vinegar, string beans have spent plenty of time in a salt pork bath, and buttery candied yams are a sweet complement to so many salty entrees. Corn bread is moist and sweet, which oddly seems to be the current standard for bread that used to be savory and have a much drier crumb when my Richmond grandmother made it from scratch.
Generous peach and apple cobblers ($3.99) are made in-house, but inexplicably use phyllo dough so they don't taste particularly cobblerlike. Cakes ($3.50) come from a woman in Nashville, Tenn., and the chocolate one easily could satisfy a sweet tooth or two.
Service is enthusiastic and hospitable. The accommodating young staff is eager, if occasionally slow to clear dishes and refill glasses. Toward the end of my third meal, my smiling server approaches, saying, "I think you have that 'I need a box' look on your face." It's a look with which I'd bet they're familiar. It's what distinguishes the view into Sweet Teas from the view into Hopper's diner: Everyone looks happy to be there — and with good reason. S
Sweet Teas Southern Cuisine
1800 E. Main St.
Mondays - Thursdays 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Fridays - Saturdays 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Sundays noon - 7 p.m.