- Scott Elmquist
- Best Café at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a top tourist draw, with an appealing deck, weekly live jazz and a varied menu served cafeteria style.
They may come for history, art or culture, but they leave with a distinctive taste in their mouths. In a food-centric town like Richmond, more than a few of a visitor's memories might involve eating. Besides our lively dining scene, many of the notable tourist attractions present a distinctive image of Richmond.
Nerds R Us: Visitors to the Science Museum of Virginia can find respite and food at Periodic Table, the cafe inside the museum with, yes, all the elements of the periodic table framed on the wall. Dark walls, deep leather couches and wooden tables and chairs reminiscent of a schoolroom make for an oasis away from the buzzing activity of the museum. The menu is simple with barbecue or fresh sandwiches courtesy of Lola's Out of the Box Lunches and kid-friendly with hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and lemonade. Worn-out parents will appreciate the full service espresso bar and the comfy sofas on which to rejuvenate while reading about the noble gases framed nearby on the wall.
Grand old Southern lady: It would be impossible for visitors to enjoy lunch at Sally Bell's Kitchen in the garden of the Valentine Richmond History Center and not leave feeling they'd experienced us at our most Southern. The brick walkways meander around a fountain and sculpture and metal benches are tucked against hedges. Chairs and tables sit under the shade of fine, old magnolia trees. Locals know the beauty of Sally Bell's potato salad and upside-down iced cupcakes, but to a visitor, they're a revelation. The traditional box lunches are here, along with bag lunches minus the deviled eggs and cheese wafers. But we show our Southern best when tourists order the box and enjoy it while birds splash in the burbling fountain.
Good ol' boy: When a visitor's first impression is The Diamond for a baseball game, we come across as a little rough around the edges. Let's just say that some tourists might be confused or put off when they see the sign for Smokey Squirrel Barbecue. Food choices here are limited to sausages, barbecue and the Sweet Spot's array of dinerlike food: nachos, fries, hot dogs and root beer floats. At least the good ol' boy image is that of a Virginian, offering Hardywood, Legend, Center of the Universe and Star Hill brews along with Virginia Diner peanuts.
The hipster: Between the high ceilings, wall of windows overlooking the reflecting pool with Dale Chihuly's glass reeds and the mod white tables and chairs, Best Café at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts makes us seem very cool to visitors. The menu offers a selection of hot food, pizza, soup and sandwiches, plus the best-priced and most generous fruit-and-cheese plate in town. Bolstering our hip quotient is the selection of Virginia wines and Blanchard's coffee. Even the most jaded tourist would savor a post-gallery afternoon spent sipping tea or wine on the deck, with a view of the sculpture garden and the cascading water steps.
Call of the wild: Nature lovers will feel like they're eating in a garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's cafe. With walls hung in botanical illustrations, a green carpet underfoot and Palladian windows to bring the outside in, Richmond will seem like the lushest place on earth. Meriwether Godsey Catering provides soups, sandwiches, desserts and a salad bar, along with a daily special, recently chicken tetrazzini with a side salad. Visitors who want a panoramic view of the lake and gardens can eat at the tea house over in the Asian valley garden. Here the caterer is the same, but the menu is more extensive, with options that include a locally-raised beef burger, a lobster roll or shrimp and grits.
The tried and true: The sheer number of visitors who come through the Tobacco Company make it many people's first impression of Richmond. Although locals may take issue with the 30-year-old décor, visitors find it alluring. "It's classic," says an Idahoan who returned after seven years with nothing but fond memories. "The ambiance is great and the acoustics are perfect. There are lots of people in here, but the sound must drift upstairs because you can hear yourself talk. It's just a really cool vibe. I brought my friend here before we had dinner at Mamma 'Zu's." The other stalwart is Sam Miller's, which is on the main drag of Shockoe Slip like the Tobacco Company. "I was walking by and I saw they had oysters," says a visiting San Franciscan, who admits that they "weren't bad, but I should have gotten them on the half shell." Like its neighbor, the décor doesn't change much, but it's inviting and the menu isn't intimidating.
So how realistic an impression do visitors get by way of their entry points? Not very. Most of the attractions offer safe menus with broad appeal so as to ensure that visitors stick around and eat. With any luck, tourists then take a page from the Idaho visitor's book and head to someplace more representative of our vibrant local food scene. S