Kendra Feather, of Ipanema Cafe, Garnett’s Cafe, the Roosevelt and WPA Bakery, sits in one of the round black chairs near the long bar of her newest restaurant, Laura Lee’s.
The place at 3410 Semmes Ave. is full of cool greens and blues, with button-upholstered banquettes and a stenciled concrete floor. There’s wallpaper that looks like a page from “Where the Wild Things Are” disguising the walk-in and minimalistic prints hang on the walls as sound panels in disguise. This is Feather’s take on the ubiquitous fern bars of the 1960s and ’70s, she says.
And it’s a family affair. She named it after her mother, and her brother-in-law, Josh Loeb, serves as its chef. As we talk, Loeb’s wife comes in with their children, who seat themselves at the bar and begin coloring.
A native Richmonder, Loeb spent time at the Berkeley with chef J. Frank and was at Tuffy Stone’s A Sharper Palate for a couple of years, among other places. After a stint out West, he felt the pull of his hometown and came back to start a family.
Although Loeb’s background is in fine dining, he’ll offer a more casual menu at Laura Lee’s. But classics such as fish and chips get a makeover that reveals his culinary training: In Loeb’s hands, it becomes a tuna dish infused with Asian flavors. Caprese salad makes use of in-season heirloom tomatoes, but the chef transforms the mozzarella into an airy concoction that Loeb calls cheese clouds.
To find out more — and just what the two mean when they call the restaurant a fern bar — I spoke with Feather and Loeb a few days before Laura Lee’s opening on Sept. 13.
Style: So Kendra, you have a bunch of restaurants already. Why did you decide to open another one?
Feather: I wasn’t going to, but the opportunity presented itself. Josh and I had been talking about doing something together for two years now. This was a location that’s exactly what I love — a space like the Roosevelt, like Garnett’s, that’s …
Loeb: … a unique neighborhood and kind of underserved in some ways.
Feather: They seem to have a spirited community — they’re proud to live in Woodland Heights and Forest Hill, and we’ve seen them be absolute cheerleaders the entire time we’ve been renovating. That’s pretty awesome.
Did you have any qualms, given that White Horse Tavern, the previous restaurant, closed?
Feather: Sure. There’s definitely always a risk — there’re no guarantees. I’m still scared! Don’t get me wrong — I’m still nervous, but I believe in our product and I believe in Josh’s talent.
Can you describe the restaurant’s concept?
Feather: It’s the modern reincarnation of a fern bar — that’s our inspiration.
What particularly did you come across that inspired it?
Feather: I like to read about the history of food and restaurants. And I was watching old Mary Tyler Moore episodes on Hulu — I was thinking about that era. We joke about the fern bar, but the history of it is fascinating. Career women in the mid-1960s — that was the first time they were included in the neighborhood joint. Otherwise, it would have been inappropriate for women of that era to go out and have a drink. … It was an unwritten rule for proper female behavior. I wanted to do something I felt like I hadn’t seen.
So, Josh, how did you start to think about the food?
Loeb: A lot of my background is in fine dining, and I realized from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a fine-dining restaurant, but we could have the same quality — use a lot of the same ingredients, the same techniques and just do fun, approachable dishes that are simply focused on a couple of main ingredients. I’d like it to be Italian food in the sense that the seasonal ingredient is the focus of the dish. … Laura Lee’s is modern American. [And] America is a melting pot of cultures — that gives me the freedom to use bits and pieces from all over.