It's probably no surprise, coming from someone who gets paid to try the best of what our city has to offer, that no chains come to mind when I think about my favorite restaurants. The most memorable places to get meals in this town tap into common elements of our local culture — food and otherwise. They remind us of where we are and why. Very few chains can do that.
With that said, I have to hand it to CafAc Caturra. The coffee and wine bar has local roots, born and bred in Midlothian, but it's also a successful chain now, three times over. In addition to locations at Midlothian Village Square and on Grove Avenue, you can get your “coffee by day, wine by night” at the newest Caturra offshoot at Short Pump Crossing, which opened in September, around the same time the original location at Alverser Plaza closed.
This newest iteration of the franchise stays true to the upwardly mobile brand. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. it's a cozy coffee house, with a full lineup of espresso-based offerings and teas, sandwiches, salads and panini. After 3, the wine bar opens, offering 3-, 6- and 9-ounce glasses, as well as a wine-fare menu, which includes a variety of topped crostinis and other savory nibbles, including a very worthy mac and cheese. From 3-6 p.m., seven days a week, beers are $3, most of the wine fare is $4 (half price), and 6-ounce glasses of wine are $5. To get a glass of the excellent primitivo and the braised short rib crostini for $9 is a steal.
The many good things to be said about CafAc Caturra Short Pump don't end there. A big stone fireplace, wide leather banquettes and love seats, wooden beams, a wall-sized chalkboard for the specials and other homey elements all help convince us we might be somewhere other than a strip mall in the suburbs. There's even a gargantuan coffee machine in the back — does it really work? — in front of a wall lined with vats of coffee beans from exotic locales to make sure we know how seriously they take their joe.
For a place that emphasizes its beverages first and foremost, Caturra has some surprisingly good food, especially the sandwiches. The chicken club panini with mozzarella, bacon and tomatoes are suitably oozy but with a nice crunch from the thick bacon and crusty bread. The BLT comes with a sweet apple mayo that plays perfectly against the salty bacon. The curry-chicken sandwich and the crispy cheese and tomato panini are similarly admirable.
Of the four soups I try, only the sweet potato is one I'd choose to have again. The chicken tortilla, tomato basil and veggie chili are off-balance in one way or another. One is too acidic, another not spicy enough, another too heavy on the corn. The salads, too, do nothing more than play second-fiddle to the sandwiches. The raspberry walnut dressing is terrific but the salad itself is more trail mix than greens. I actually take all the extra walnuts and dried cranberries home for our dinner salad that night.
All in all, though, what could be wrong with a place that offers pretty decent and sometimes excellent food, a nice wine selection, fine coffee choices, and some good happy hour — what the restaurant calls “your hour” — deals, all in an undeniably pleasant setting? I promise I'm not one to find fault just for the sake of having something contrary to say. But here's my issue: CafAc Caturra could be anywhere. It could fall from the sky and land in Sacramento, Calif., Akron, Ohio, or Buffalo, N.Y., and you'd never guess that this nice little coffee and wine bar originated right here in Richmond. Just like Panera Bread, or Starbucks, while it may offer a mostly quality product, it has no sense of place, and frankly feels a bit generic.
But perhaps that's exactly the point. Style Weekly reported last year that the company plans to open 22 cafes during the next seven years, and other sources have reported that this expansion will include the Carolinas and beyond. Kudos to the CafAc Caturra brand.
It's just too bad that, if and when that big expansion happens, there won't be a piece of Richmond that gets carried along for the ride. Based on the formula the company's employed thus far, there won't be any signature dishes, ingredients, drinks, decor or other elements that reflect CafAc Caturra's River City roots.
To me, that's a shame.
CafAc Caturra — Short Pump Crossing ($)
3332 Pump Road
Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday-Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
The other locations are:
5811 Grove Ave., 285-0690, and 13830 Village Place Drive in Midlothian, 378-4955.