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Short Order

How the Richmond restaurant industry adapted in the 2009 economy.



Taste and Aftertaste

Some of Richmond's best chefs are scratching their heads over how to deal with the ever-challenging restaurant business. Should they spend the money to build separate smoking rooms? Start Tweeting and putting time into Facebook? Get back to old-school cooking or chase the trends? Or worse, should they just give up?

At least two dozen independents chose the latter, or rather their balance sheets — and in a few cases, impending bankruptcy — did them in. At least a dozen places are listed, quietly, for sale. It was disheartening for some owners to end their long and mostly successful runs.

Notable among the closings were Peking Restaurant in Westhampton, a stalwart under the impeccable leadership of Dick Du, whose other Peking locations remain open; the Track in Carytown, which after three decades of fine-dining accolades for its seafood gave up the ghost. Zuppa, the highly popular soup-and-sandwich mainstay, dropped out in August.

Longtimers La Siesta, Easy Street, the Border, Spinnaker's, Pasta Luna, Just Willie's and Taphouse Grill shut their doors; Richbrau remains open. With shorter runs, Que Pasa in Church Hill, Highwater at Toad's Place, Nara Sushi, Rivers Ridge, Magnolia's, Hidden Treasure, Ms. Maggie's, La Cave, Fondue Fanatic, Famelia's Deli, Fast Eddie's Jukebox Cafe in Goochland and Cuppa Tea Company closed shop, along with national franchises such as Planet Wings, which sat nearly empty on Forest Hill Avenue down from the now-crushed Wendy's, another goner.

Two restaurants with fervent local-foods missions, the Edible Garden and the Fat Goat, reluctantly stopped serving in recent weeks despite loyal followings. Similarly, Italian wine bar Enoteca Sogno is looking for a new home after closing last month. Some of those locations already have new tenants, and some owners have moved into different food-industry areas.  

Still, economics didn't keep other Richmond restaurateurs from chasing the dream. An equal number of openings, led by some high-dollar renovations, gave diners delicious reason for optimism. Getting the most attention were the retooled Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel; beauteous Balliceaux in the Fan; Bouchon in Shockoe Slip; the Republic, which wisely worked ahead of the curve to allow for smokers; the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing; the Belvidere at Broad and Wild Ginger.

A few siblings entered the fray: Shackleford's in Midlothian, City Dogs in the Fan, Emilio's Short Pump, Coast, Water Grill, Garnett's CafAc, Tandoor Tikka & Kebab, Bocca Toscana, F.W. Sullivan's (in the former Easy Street) and Eurasia. New to the market were Belle Vie, Dora's Brazilian Grill, Alamo BBQ, Aztek Grill, Anokha Unique Cuisine of India, Plaza Mexico and a revived Infuzion, among others. Sports bars T-Miller's and Gus' Bar & Grill were newcomers in a crowded field. The community space at Ellwood's Coffee and new delivery service from Lamplighter Coffee added dimension to the java scene.

Farmers' markets abounded in 2009, with new locations in all parts of town, longer, multiseason runs and vigorous vendor and shopper activity. The Berkeley Hotel recaptured its four-diamond award for dining.

Food bloggers got an aggregator,, and some of the most influential bloggers got extra attention from restaurant operators courting their opinions. A few local chefs earned national press and television exposure, notably Lemaire's Walter Bundy in Esquire magazine's “best new restaurants” issue.

Diners got menus loaded with shrimp and grits, bread pudding, Mediterranean appetizers, mac and cheese, bacon, pizza and especially brunch.

What will captivate Richmond palates next year? Watch this space next week for a preview of 20-some restaurants set to open here in 2010. No matter the climate, it's feast, not famine.

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