Richmond knows a little something about Southern style. Sweet tea may not be quite as pervasive as it once was, but visitors are still struck by our old-school friendliness, gracious hospitality and penchant for putting pimento cheese on practically anything.
And while local restaurants aplenty serve up heaping helpings of all that, food warriors have fresh meat to chew on. The Southerly Restaurant and Patio, an ambitious import from a chain with outposts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, has arrived, sitting adjacent to its grocery counterpart, Southern Season, offering an out-of-town take on Southern eating.
The oversized dining room has a cookie-cutter feel with little to distinguish its corporate brown and beige interior. Richmonders love their booths, and there are nice, deep ones here, but the generic-looking art on the walls feels like an afterthought. The expansive patio at least offers fresh air, and although construction noise is pervasive as the development of the property continues, the privacy of a high brick wall mitigates those sights and sounds.
From the moment you arrive, it's impossible to miss the army of servers. But restaurant armies should be well trained and capable of moving diners through a meal with knowledge, skill and problem-solving finesse. On my first visit, appetizers arrive long before the wine does — and then only after the wrong wine is brought first. A second visit results in inordinate lags between stopovers from our server who neglects to bring spoons for coffee and hot tea. Twice there's something incorrect on the bill. When I inquire what's in the deviled eggs, I'm told eggs. But things may be looking up, because by my third visit, unlike prior meals, I don't hear a single glass or plate shatter while hitting the floor.
My first dinner is launched with those deviled local-farm eggs ($6), appropriately adorned with another local favorite, Edwards country ham. Creamy and salty, they're just about perfect. I can't say the same for roasted garlic and kale hummus ($6), a lackluster dip for black pepper flatbread. Another time at lunch, the kitchen shows off with shrimp bisque ($5/$7), a soup-of-the-day standout boasting subtle heat and enough shrimp that multiple spoonfuls are required to get them all. The bowl returns to the kitchen licked clean.
Chicken and waffles ($12), de rigueur on Southern menus these days, get an update with a cheddar waffle and Tabasco vinaigrette. But the crispy thigh is boneless (read: less flavorful) and there's no sweet component to complement the salty. Not particularly Southern, but reason to enough to return, is the meatloaf sandwich ($12), a behemoth infused with green chilies and chorizo, and gussied up with fried onions. Just as solid is the Southerly burger ($14), getting its Southern bona fides from a generous swipe of smoked pimento cheese. But it's the interplay of pickled onions and apple-wood bacon that tickles my taste buds.
Noncarnivores, take heart: Not everything at the Southerly involves livestock. Golden pimento cheese fritters ($8), crispy on the outside and gooey inside, drift atop a wave of Peggy Rose's hot pepper jelly and instigate a fork war for the fifth fritter at a table of four. And no one misses meat in a dish of heirloom zucchini-risotto cakes ($10/$16) over roasted red pepper jam lashed with thick shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Baby spinach salad ($10), as ubiquitous in Richmond as statues of dead Confederates, benefits from pickled figs, apple matchsticks, spiced pecans and local goat cheese.
Although the menu promises that the Southerly capitalizes on the abundance of local farmers and artisans across the Commonwealth, you won't see that on the drink menu beyond a rotating Virginia white and red wine by the glass ($5). But if you're a beer drinker, there are five local varieties to choose from ($5 each or $6 for a flight of four). Points go to Southerly for not charging a wine corkage fee for bottles not on the restaurant's list that are purchased next door — reason enough to shop before you eat.
President John F. Kennedy famously called Washington a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency, and the same might be said of the Southerly. Despite charm and efficiency in short supply, chances are you'll find your food mostly enjoyable. Is that enough? Depends on what you call Southern hospitality. S
The Southerly Restaurant and Patio
Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
2250 Staples Mill Road