In a food city like Richmond, variety is a defining feature. Having a readily accessible smorgasbord, with everything from a $5 Frito pie at Don't Look Back to Perch's $200 multicourse tasting menu, is crucial.
Self-proclaimed restaurant scene historians generally trace the starting gun that launched Richmond on its path to becoming a food city to July 2011, when the Roosevelt opened its Church Hill doors. Once a new level of dining and drinking had been inaugurated, what seemed like a stampeding herd of restaurants, bakeries, breweries and distilleries piled on, until even the national press had to acknowledge us as a food destination.
But for many, especially come-heres from the Northeast, one burning question remained: How could Richmond possibly be considered a food town with no local bagel shop?
All that changed last spring when Nate's Bagels opened. It had been two years since Nate Mathews began trolling New York bagel shops, experimenting to create the kind of bagels Richmonders wanted, and he held a series of pop-ups to acquaint locals with his products. Before the shop even opened, website the Nosher published a list of each state's supreme bagels, and Nate's got the Virginia nod.
During the 35-day government shutdown, an idle federal employee named Jim Warner used his forced unemployment to write a program to create a map of bagel store density along the East Coast. To absolutely no bagel lover's surprise, his map showed that there are 30 to 40 bagel stores within a 1-mile radius in much of New Jersey and southern New York, along with a few in major cities like Boston, Miami and Washington.
Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia, he concluded, have a serious bagel-shop deficit.
Jacqueline O'Connor, a Richmond come-here from Massapequa, Long Island, grew up with bagel shops on every corner, which she frequented on her way to school in the mornings. Her family even included bagels in its Christmas morning breakfast.
"Those bagel shops have at least 20 different kinds of cream cheese, including chocolate, and some have as many as 50," she says, recalling her favorite combination as a salt bagel with vanilla walnut raisin cream cheese. At Nate's, her standard order is a schmear of honey vanilla cream cheese on a salt bagel.
Style Weekly food critic Paul Brockwell recalls being impressed with Mathews for seeing a void in Richmond's food scene and stepping in to own it. He also believes that the Restaurant of the Year should be a place everyone has the ability to enjoy.
"And for that, Nate's hits the mark," he insists. "While you may have to wait in a line — the dread — it's not outside the realm of financial possibly to grab one of Nate's bagel sandwiches."
Cream cheese options aside, O'Connor joins Brockwell in seeing Nate's Bagels as a game changer.