It’s not often that a general manager of a new, soon-to-open restaurant obsesses about minutiae like bathroom faucets or the umbrellas on the patio. But Bobby Kruger of Belle & James, the restaurant he’s opening with owner Kunal Shah in mid- to late August at 700 E. Main St., has had time on his hands.
The spot has encountered delay after delay, but general manager Kruger seems remarkably unfazed. It’s in the same building as two new hotels, a Hampton Inn and Suites and a Homewood Suites, and completion was forced to follow the building’s construction schedule instead of its own. It was something Kruger hadn’t encountered before, but the wait turned out to have an unexpected upside.
“Our space, from a design and décor standpoint, is significantly improved — vastly improved,” he says, “over where it would be if we’d opened as projected.”
Hence his obsession with fixtures. While waiting on the plumbing for the building to go in, for instance, he had time to drill down to the fine details of the space. It’s affected the food too.
“I know everybody involved with the food side of things is chomping at the bit to actually get up and running,” he says. “But at the same time, our menu is stronger now than it was two months ago.”
And Kruger wouldn’t be doing the pop-ups planned for July — one was on Tuesday, July 21, at the Blue Goat and another Monday, July 27, at Curry Craft Indian Restaurant & Bar — if the opening had gone forward as expected. He says the pop-ups are a way to keep the staff happy, spark some creativity and test ideas. It’s also a chance to build relationships with other chefs around town.
Belle & James’ chef, Michael Crowley, formerly of Max’s on Broad, is classically trained in French cuisine. Working with other chefs — Curry Craft’s Mel Oza, for example — only broadens his experience. “The more push [Crowley] has before the open,” Kruger says, “the more passion he’s going to have right at the get-go.”
Kruger and Crowley are in the midst of designing a menu full of French American fare. “It’s a balance back and forth between what people are very familiar with,” Kruger says, “and it also gives us a chance to showcase and highlight technique and the quality of ingredients.”
The bar program will naturally focus on the latest trends in craft cocktails. After all, Kruger was the first bartender in Richmond to start experimenting with new syrups and small-batch ingredients he either made himself or sourced out of town. Most drinks will be limited to the restaurant and change seasonally, with a few classics sprinkled throughout.
Kruger’s also been running an informal craft-cocktail educational program of sorts while he waits for the Belle & James to open. He’s cycled through four seasonal drink menus since the project began, and his bartenders have been thoroughly trained in what will be served. But the staff isn’t training in the space yet and attendance has been voluntary. Sessions are open and other bar managers from around town have dropped in to find out about new products and to get a few ideas. “Think of it as a club of people mutually interested in learning about craft cocktails,” he says.
The plan is to open in time for the UCI Road World Championships in September. Belle & James will have a patio right on Main Street — prime dining real estate — and Kruger has arranged for deliveries to arrive in the middle of the night to avoid traffic and crowds.
The target date is looming, but, Kruger says, he isn’t worried: “I’m actually more confident now after having gone through [delays] than I was before.” S