1 S. Mulberry St.
Dirty martinis, even prepared with surgical skill, don't mix with nachos, no matter how mountainous. But that's my fault. And it takes the one-two of these tastes to pull you out of yourself long enough to look around this corner bar and realize that the salty gentleman sitting with the well-assembled young lady in this forest of burnished wood represents the distilled spirit of the Fan or, at least in some cosmic way, its hub. So I can relax with my nacho cocktail, knowing that sooner or later, everybody finds themselves under this hammered ceiling.
Dot's Back Inn
4030 MacArthur Ave.
In the tasteful wasteland of the North Side, a diner rose from its own ashes as a place to while away the quiet nights with a pork chop and a cigarette. Dot's is the suburban "Phillies" from Hopper's lonely painting. Except that, after surviving a fire, it rejoices in its immortality with breakfast all day, the basics on tap, a salsa that will kick your shins and a burger that'll make it all OK. And everybody's laughing, sometimes even dancing, because they know the secret: The years may pass, but this neighborhood diner will never grow up.
272 W. Broad St.
Some maintain that with the opening of Empire, the "scene" has found a new outpost. It's probably true that after 10, the crowd at Empire reads like a who's who of rock, ink and art in River City, but the real thing to know is that Sunday nights before 8, 22-ounce cans of PBR, hamburgers and veggie burgers are just $2 apiece. The menu has been streamlined since its opening but retains innovative twists on bar food standards, like fried cheese sticks made out of Muenster instead of mozzarella.
109 S. 12th St.
For anyone who counted Small's closing in Manhattan a loss, Fusion, a new bar in Shockoe Slip, offers another narrow staircase for jazz enthusiasts to descend, proving their love for whatever combo is holding court in the dimly lighted basement. The restaurant at street level is ski-lodge cozy, with high ceilings, blond wood and exposed brick. The menu's a predictable mix of fried finger-food appetizers and small-plate portions for drinkers, with more adventurous full meals for those not on a primarily liquid diet. When the stereo dies down in the restaurant, though, music from downstairs leaks in to remind you that the basement is where it's really at.
917 W. Grace St.
Imagine the Roger Corman B-flick that never was: "The Hipsters Live Underground!" This place is so intimate it's not really a basement so much as a grotto. But anyplace that can use tin mobile-home siding as a ceiling accent and make it work can sure as hell convince me to eat tofu. No meat on the chalkboard, and it's still one of the best menus in town. A richness and flavor matched only by the sensory stimulation of the shaggy-haired fellas with square highball glasses and the lean candlelit gals in deck shoes. The bathroom's a tin-roofed coffin, but that's life underground.
101 W. Franklin St.
The most seductive luxury at the Jefferson Hotel is the steady certainty that if it goes a certain way at the bar, you can always be tucked into a room upstairs, snuggly cubbied like merlot in a wine rack. The expertly mixed martinis, top-shelf liquor, and in our case delicately crisped polenta with portobello mushrooms and blue cheese appetizer, were in tune with the hotel's enunciated elegance. Tan marbled pillars, Tiffany blue walls, bow-tied bartenders and, on our night, a wilting bride and bridal party completed the décor. Come here to begin, end, or deviate from a marriage.
1421 E. Cary St.
Lucky Lounge is the kind of place that you might not want to see when the lights come back on, but until then, the drinks are cheap, the crowd is lively to the point of abandon and the DJ is competent. Lucky Lounge also houses the best attraction in the Bottom: Behind the DJ, a back-lighted screen projects the silhouettes of dancing girls over the crowd like it's amateur night at Uncle Hef's. Dice, diamonds, hearts and spades decorate the club; there's even a velvet-roped VIP corral. And it's Richmond's best place to see straight white guys dance.
2232 W. Main St.
In a city so fixated on living in the past, it's good to get a drink somewhere that hangs out in the future. Somebody's idea of the future, anyway. In a "Blade Runner" town, Sticky is where the replicants would go for sushi and sake. It's a future of delicate hanging parasols, bar gongs, wall murals, a respectable selection of Mexican beers and a projection screen of forbidden images. Because it's all slightly out of sync with reality, we saw "The Incredibles" over a hideously tasty sticky ball only days after the movie had opened in theaters. Disorienting? Try to unravel the mysteries of the bathroom doors, the Cold War-era video-game joystick at the bar or the Godzirra roll. But then comes the waitress: a doll-faced girl carrying a bowl of Tater Tots in her hieroglyph-covered arms, telling us the future is now. S
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