When the popular — but somehow not profitable — Main Street Grill closed its vegetarian-friendly doors in 2002, many Richmonders wondered if it was a sign of hard times hitting the Bottom. A year later, CafAc Gutenberg opened its retrofitted doors as a continental bistro with a literary theme (the original logo featured reading spectacles) and many took it as a sign the Bottom might instead experience a renaissance.
On the wall by the server's station, you can still see the high-water mark left by the 2004 flooding that killed several neighborhood joints. CafAc Gutenberg shoveled out the mud and has been mostly open ever since, weathering steady menu, management and investor changes along the way, and, recently, a complete interior redesign.
Jen Mindell and Garrett Berry are chefs first, and new to the ownership game. Rather than looking across the pond for classical inspiration, they're focused on what's available in our own back yard, or right across the street at the 17th Street Farmers' Market.
The Gutenburger is still here in all its half-pound glory, and ordered medium rare with Roquefort and bacon it may just be the best burger in town. Skip the ketchup and mustard. The local mushroom burger takes it over the top with Dave and Dee's oyster 'shrooms and garlic mayo. Also noteworthy are a nicely braised, pulled-pork French dip and the wide range of sides, including shaved-truffle frites, which add interesting contrast to the straightforward sandwiches.
The carnivore version of the mixed grill, with skewers of shrimp, chicken satay and curried beef, was rescued from mundanity by jade-parsley sauce. The grass-fed beef was robust and flavorful, as was the flatiron steak.
Brunch — all day, everyday — is an efficient way to minimize food costs, with batter and eggs giving substance that's pleasing to omnivores, vegetarians and vegans through simple recipe substitution. A good vegan sausage option isn't quite as tasty as the Surry version, but like the noteworthy farm-raised-duck sausage on the appetizer menu, it's made in-house. The bonus is that these aren't tricks to absorb leftovers; this is brunch prepared to order, so you can count on freshness and consistency, which makes it the best new weekend brunch spot in town and certainly the only place to get a pumpkin spice waffle at 5 o'clock on a Tuesday. The 17th Street Scramble gives Millie's messes some neighborly competition with a mix of egg, potato, cheese, scallions, peppers and onions topped with sour cream and salsa.
The upstairs dining space, one of my favorite places to sit and relax with an excellent cup of coffee after a good meal, has been open only when business warrants the extra seating. I'd expect that to be more and more. The kitchen delivers. The warm yellow of the dining room overlooking the Farmers' Market and historic Main Street Station make it a destination worthy of out-of-town guests. And the staff is already on point. Equally attentive during slow midweek dinners and the crush of Mother's Day brunch, the black-clad, runway-ready figures move with the familiar ballet rhythm of a well-run restaurant.
When one considers how many meals are consumed outside of the home each year — more than 70 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association — the potential impact of supporting local farmers and purveyors is clear. When author and activist Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle spoke at the Richmond Forum last month, both stressed the need to support local agriculture, especially in regions adjacent to metropolitan areas. Richmond restaurants are selectively joining this movement, and Gutenberg is a solid addition to the list. S
CafAc Gutenberg $$
1700 E. Main St.
Wednesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.