Stay in Richmond long enough and even the grande dames of the dining scene bow to changing times.
In the case of the stalwart Tobacco Company, it took a kitchen fire and yearlong closure for management to move out of the 20th century. But when it came to the tried and true Strawberry Street Cafe — known more for its kitschy bathtub salad bar than any real culinary strengths — nothing short of new management was going to drag the moribund eatery onto the radar of Richmond foodies.
Enter new owners who purchased the building last year before dubbing it Scuffletown Garden Restaurant & Bar and bringing on executive chef Adam Campbell — lately of Rappahannock and part of Alewife’s opening crew — to execute a vision more in line with the here and now than the decades that gave us synthesizers and grunge.
For the uninitiated, Scuffletown is the name of the pocket park at the center of the block facing the restaurant. As for the garden part, that’s on the roof, where vegetables and herbs have unencumbered access to sun and rain before starring in myriad menu items. Inside, walls of forest green play off neutral colors that benefit from an array of plants — in the front window, on room dividers and hanging from the wall— and an abundance of natural light.
If the incoming team didn’t actually burn sage to cleanse the space of negative energy and bring wisdom and clarity to its fresh endeavor, it nonetheless achieved a total overhaul in the restaurant’s vibe.
Of all the options to introduce you to Campbell’s cooking, his green bean salad ($7) gets my vote. We ordered it to buy ourselves time to peruse our options — only to overhear a staffer say it’s his favorite thing on the menu — and I’d suggest you do the same. The killer combination of green, wax and fava beans may not sound novel, but the addition of goat cheese, fava bean puree and candied Fresno chilies — sweet and crispy thanks to a moment in the frying pan — had us debating the civility of plate licking.
The menu section dubbed “Protein” features daily options of beef, chicken, pork and fish. On one visit, we tucked into monkfish ($17) cooked to moist perfection, then gussied up with the North African green sauce chamoula and a blanket of parsley and garlic-heavy chimichurri.
Pro tip: Generously portioned vegetable and starch side dishes, usually $7, are only $5 when added to a protein selection. Vegetarians could make a meal of stellar sides such as carrots and chicories, the former miso-roasted, the latter grilled and studded with candied spiced almonds; black garlic potato salad, colored with cuttlefish ink and elevated with scallions, kohlrabi and pickled red onion; and a fabulous miso-marinated farro salad showing off with blueberries, purple basil, charred red onion and anise hyssop.
Even on a hot summer evening, there’s no resisting the siren song of beef shank pasta ($18), its house-made beet bucatini both gloriously toothsome and a dazzling red color. Between the deeply flavorful shank meat, beets and cipollini onions, it’s a dish that’ll undoubtedly be popular with fall’s arrival.
Lunch has been discontinued in favor of dinner and weekend brunch. It’s at the latter that you’ll find a fried catfish sandwich ($10) that gets points for its light batter but could use more seasoning, and a pickle-brined fried chicken sandwich ($9) with a swipe of Duke’s mayo that delivers a rewarding shatter of crispy bits with every mouthful.
Given there’s an ice cream shop a few doors down, Scuffletown Gardens is wise to enlist the folks at Scoop to craft herbs into ice creams. That said, its own sweet game is strong, as is clear with a deconstructed carrot cake ($11) that’s the stuff dessert dreams are made of: chunks of carrot cake over a thick schmear of carrot juice-laced cream cheese, adorned with black sesame tuile and taken over the top with sublime lemon verbena ice cream.
Also made with house-grown herbs, cinnamon basil chocolate chip ice cream unfolds on the palate, first the cream’s richness, followed by the basil aroma opening up in your mouth and finishing with the one-two punch of cinnamon and chocolate. More, please.
Like its predecessor, Scuffletown Garden is a neighborhood eatery offering dinner and weekend brunch, a place where you’ll see young families with children eating alongside couples having a dinner date. It can get noisy, although I appreciate that the music remains loud enough to add to the room’s liveliness. Happy hour kicks off at 4 p.m. during the week, notable not just for half off beer and wine by the glass, but for the real fun of playing cocktail roulette where $6 gets you a classic cocktail based on what you spin. The appeal of gambling and imbibing all but guarantees bar seats become scarce.
Cue Jasmine in “Aladdin:” Scuffletown Gardens is a whole new world on Strawberry Street. Hallelujah and pass the roulette wheel. And for those still emotionally attached to the bathtub, you can rest easy knowing it’s found a new life starting seedlings out front.
Scuffletown Garden Restaurant & Bar
Mondays – Thursdays 4 - 10 p.m., Fridays 4 – 11 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5- 10 p.m.
421 Strawberry St.