The year started with dire reports: Richmond restaurants were closing left and right and even the longtimers weren't safe. Richbrau, the White Dog, the Smokey Pig, the North Pole, Ipanema Grill, Stool Pigeons, Shahi Kitchen, Shackleford's Midlothian, Croaker's Spot and dozens of others gave up the ghost in 2010 — sometimes publicly, sometimes in an overnight disappearing act.
But that didn't quite squelch the dream. New restaurants opened in Richmond at an astonishing clip — on average more than one every week (see a partial list of 60-plus new restaurants below), well more than were closed. How could things change so quickly? Cheap rent, plenty of used equipment and workers to put it in, and a (sometimes unwarranted) belief that no matter how many casualties, some people can put out great food or make money knowing that survival in the business often is measured by the shot glass.
Sushi wasn't a player — nothing came in to challenge what's already here. Asian fusion had a mixed take — in at Fan House, out at Dd33, which succumbed as a retooled sports bar. Burgers and pizza remained as predictably present as potatoes and pasta, and dessert menus were rife with bread pudding. Small plates continued to creep in, often a clumsy attempt at downsizing that left people hungry and underwhelmed.
The quality and value of by-the-glass wines improved while competition and expertise grew, particularly along the Carytown corridor. Beer choices jumped — there's good beer here, Richmond — and cocktails became a signature item with mixologists looking for and getting recognition. The word privatize became something to argue about once the no-smoking law became old news. People figured out their own solutions to the smoke ban, some violating it but few facing enforcement. Those who like to taste their food rejoiced that most businesses fell in line.
Inventiveness can be a hard sell in Richmond, but some chefs heeded the call — Tim Bereika at Secco Wine Bar, Greg Haley at Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Philip Denny at Six Burner, Todd Manley and his crew at Pescados China Street, Carly Herring at Empress and others put out dishes not usually served here, with bonus points for presentation.
Playfulness found a following, as did the more classic preparations of chefs Walter Bundy at Lemaire, whose venison is world-class, Jason Alley at Comfort, who won a Star Chefs honor, the impeccable Dale Reitzer at Acacia Mid-town. The crews at Rustica, Black Sheep, Ipanema CafAc and many others put out solid and affordable savories, and CafAc Gutenberg was host to a banh mi throwdown that was one of the year's memorable food challenges. That's only part of the good stuff, and readers are encouraged to weigh in.
Chef Jimmy Sneed returned with a new venture, Fresca on Addison, a cafe vegetarians have clamored for in a neighborhood that's become a food destination from Lamplighter to Acacia. Similarly, Sprout Market & CafAc brought credence to its local-foods mission, sourcing everything by heart and name, building a reputation for music as well as honest food. Live bands also made year-old Balliceaux a Richmond must-try for its evolving bar and kitchen.
Brunch and breakfast continued to draw crowds, and one of the biggest winners was McLeans, now in far cleaner quarters on Broad Street with lines out the door from the start. Other moves included 821 CafAc, a breakfast favorite with blueberry pancakes to dream on, in a bright new space next door and Bistro R, which shuttled across West Broad near Innsbrook. Croaker's Spot fled downtown (and a tax bill?) but reopened in Manchester in a handsome renovation. Vietnam Garden went west for decorative dining rooms to suit its menu. Two businesses stayed put but changed names — Savor CafAc in Manchester is now the Lunch Porter, and Bouchon in Shockoe Slip is now Bistro Bobette, but both are otherwise the same, its chefs and owners Ellie Basch and Francis Devilliers among the city's most focused.
EatingRichmond.com, an aggregator, got a makeover to accommodate the city's growing food blogger contingent. National media continued to hunt and peck among the chefs, artisans and purveyors making food here more dynamic, and Richmond showed up on cable television food and travel shows (Caliente, the Black Sheep, Q Barbeque, Julep's and others) and in magazines as diverse as Garden & Gun and Southern Living.
Richmond finally got its Slow Food chapter; a Women Chefs and Restaurateurs chapter pushing school lunch nutrition; a stronger community garden system; more farmers' markets, including a permanent shelter in Lakeside; and a flurry of backyard chicken farmers and micro-growers.
If you weren't eating something tantalizing in Richmond last year, it wasn't for lack of options. Next week, we'll chart the future, which looks vigorous.
New in 2010
(in no particular order and not exhaustive)
Amuse, Best CafAc, Bonvenu, CineBistro, Secco Wine Bar, Pescados China Street, Olio, the Grill at Patterson and Libbie, Kenn-Tico Cuban Bar & Grill, Urban Farmhouse, Outer Banks Seafood, Croaker's Spot Manchester, McCormack's Whisky Grill & Smokehouse, Bellytimber Tavern, TaZa Coffee ‘n CrA"me, La Cucina, Fire & Ice, Fresca on Addison, Stuzzi, Carytown CafAc Ole, Arianna's in Lakeside, Don Pepe, Dos Amigos, Addis Ethiopian, Amour Wine Bistro, Xtra's CafAc, Parkside CafAc, Lehja India Delicious, Basili's Greek, Ettamae's CafAc, Nate's Taco Truck Stop, MainStream, Positive Vibe Express, Osteria la Giara, Bogart's, Sprout, 3325 W. CafAc, Ruang Tong, Papa's Pizza Manchester, Fish Bowl Bistro, Friend or Pho, Fan House, Current, 9 N. 4th, Flinn's, Greek Islands, Rose & Clay CafAc (also closed), Sally Bell's at Byrd Park and at the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Empress, King of Szechuan, Belmont Pizzeria, Cellar Door, Thai Top Ten, Sweet 95, Nuevo Mexico, Plaza Azteca at Reynolds Crossing, Huynh's Vietnamese, the Wine Loft, Balkan Restaurant, Tropical Safari and MaMa Wok.
[image-2] Special Order
Style restaurant critics have some specific hopes for Richmond food in 2011:
Less watered down. We have watered down tapas, lackluster pizza and crappy,
unenthusiastic sports bars. I want commitment. — Robey Martin
A real deli with great bagels. A case filled with a dozen kinds of cream cheese, another with salami, etc., and a third with fresh-baked cookies. It could be eat-in or carry-out or both. — Don Baker
Tart, real frozen yogurt Aÿ la Pinkberry or 40 Carrots in Bloomingdale's in New York. — Tess Bosher
I'm still looking for a great Mexican or tapas place, like Mas in Charlottesville or any of Rick Bayless' places in Chicago. And decent service. And better Chinese that delivers — if only Full Kee delivered ... — John Haddad