Basking in the warmth of strong cocktails, expertly prepared smoked mussels and squid-ink orzo and genial company seems but a distant memory. Perhaps a still from some nostalgia-laden film, a snapshot of a time where we didn’t know how good we had it.
Last year, Style named Jackson Ward’s Adarra its restaurant of the year. “Adarra is a love letter to Basque country, written in plates and bowls meant to be shared,” wrote food critic Karen Newton.
In 2019 Longoven was crowned cream of the crop, with critic Phaedra Hise deeming Patrick Phelan’s dishes bold, unexpected and edgy.
At the time Phelan said of dining at Longoven, “Hospitality strives to take you to a place for a brief period of time to enjoy possibly the most habitual experience we have on this planet. … When you come in here, a small part of you has to be willing to surrender yourself to the experience.”
Today, the only experiences we seem to be surrendering to are fraught, terrifying and uncertain. And while yes, Adarra and Longoven are luckily still here, they’re fighting against the great unknown every service.
Will they join the dozens of restaurants that have closed in Richmond over the past 12 months?
Of course, it’s not just Richmond hurting. And it’s certainly not just the restaurant industry – a fact any restaurateur you speak with is quick to point out. But the inauspicious, daily death knell of these small businesses feels particularly tragic, especially in the wake of Richmond’s emergence on the national dining scene.
What happens if we can’t save independent restaurants? What does this city – what does any city – look like in the wake of that disaster?
In December, prolific restaurateur and chef Edward Lee told Bon Appetit that it’s not if but when independent restaurants will fail: “You drive by the local McDonald’s and there are 20 cars lined up for drive-through. It breaks your heart to see that and to know that by the time all of the independent restaurants go away, it’ll be too late. The customers will say, ‘What a shame.’ The chance to save them is right now.”
So no, for this year’s State of the Plate issue, there is no restaurant of the year for 2021. There couldn’t be. Every chef, server, bartender, manager, line cook, dishwasher, bus boy and delivery driver who showed up to work during a global pandemic deserves the restaurant of the year award. And a big, fat tip.
Instead we’re homing in on themes that the pandemic brought to light, ones we hope to see going forward: innovation, empathy, action and comfort.
“I love how you call it innovation,” laughs longtime Richmond mixologist and bartender extraordinaire Beth Dixon. “I call it survival mode.”
Dixon has kept her main gig as head bartender at L’Opossum while forging her own bar consulting business, Salt and Acid, on the side.
She joins the ranks of other creative, hard-working industry vets doing whatever the hell they can to feed their families and keep their sanity. In spite of everything, necessity breeding invention has helped new concepts get off the ground – and succeed – during the pandemic.
Talented chefs like Perch’s Mike Ledesma have been forced to slow down, giving them time to train the next generation of Richmond toques in kitchen incubators like InstaBowl. Commissary kitchen Hatch is also molding new concepts and will soon present Richmond with a long overdue food hall, a “foodie paradise,” says Hatch executive director Austin Green.
In between deep-cleaning their dining rooms, re-ordering PPE supplies, and figuring out how to pay rent with a third of their usual revenue, restaurant owners are taking their concerns to City Hall.
Longtime Richmond restaurateur and consultant Jason Alley has taken on the role of provisional policy advisor for restaurants and small businesses, hoping to open lines of communication between struggling business owners and the policymakers who could help them.
There have been invaluable helpers, too. Take the Richmond Public School staff, which provided 2,456,398 meals to students during the pandemic. Or Central Virginia’s main hunger-relief organization, Feed More, which is producing 20,000 ready-made meals a week for those in need.
Help can also look like comfort – the kind you run to without stopping until its warm embrace envelops you whole. New and established restaurants alike are leaning into comfort food, making big-as-your-face sandwiches and deep fried delights.
There’s much to mourn as we dive into a new year under a new world order. People have lost their livelihoods, their homes, their lives.
But there’s something to celebrate, too. Small victories, little daily miracles. And the hope that maybe next year we’ll all be laughing and drinking and feasting in Richmond’s restaurant of the year, reminiscing about that strange, sad year.
INNOVATION: Next Generation
Look out for ingenious new concepts – and faces – this year.
EMPATHY: Filling the Gap
Feed More and the Richmond Public Schools served millions of meals to the hungry last year, but will it continue to be enough?
ACTION: In the Weeds
Can bureaucrats and restaurant owners form a symbiotic relationship?
COMFORT: Comfort Food
During a time where discomfort is the norm, these restaurants offer solace.
Q&A: Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Chatting with local delivery services Quickness RVA and Chop Chop RVA.