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Sweetwater's unpretentious menu satisfies winter cravings for hearty fare.

Comfort, not Confit


In the dead of winter, we often crave sturdy and basic food. We may not be in the mood for salmon encrusted with the grains or nuts du jour or a pasta with the pesto au moment, good as these things might be another time. We want comfort, not confit; warm and cozy, not coulis. And it's even better when it costs little more than a meal at a fast-food franchise. Many of the little corner restaurants that used to be a staple in almost every neighborhood have mostly disappeared or gone upscale in menu and prices. The Fan still has a few places that have kept the tradition and still feed a hungry diversity at prices that don't give guilt or wreck the budget. It's rare for a new place to attempt to fit into this niche, most choosing the pricier alternative, but Sweetwater Restaurant, near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, provides a wholesome alternative to fast-food sameness. Although it is located at the corner of West Broad and Laurel, the restaurant is not as obvious as this busy corner might suggest. Looking like an abandoned building on the Broad Street side, the entrance is on Laurel at the back side of the building and looks more like an entrance to a club for the aggressively pierced seeking musical alternatives, (which it once was), than a restaurant featuring home-style food. And the banner outside suggests "just opened" rather than a business that opened last October. But inside it's comfortable if plain, with enough of the building's turn-of-the-century characteristics intact to make it interesting. Our server was amiable and enthusiastic about the made-in-the-kitchen quality of the food. And the pacing from the kitchen was prompt but not rushed. [image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comThe menu ranges from traditional bar food, soup and sandwiches to regular entrees — a kind of updated diner-style menu. The restaurant also features a number of entrees, sandwiches and snacks that will appeal to the growing number of vegetarians. Among the appetizers and bar snacks ($3.95-$5.95) are nachos, crab and artichoke dip, a hummus plate and fried oysters. More unusual is the "peasant bowl" which features leftovers du jour, a bargain perhaps at $3.95 for hungry students. Six golden-brown fried oysters were too heavily battered for my taste, and the oysters had lost their plumpness and most of their flavor. The accompanying fresh tartar sauce, however, was quite good. Warm soups on cold days can be very comforting. Corn chowder ($2.25/$3.95), more soup than chowder, was rich in flavor but lacking the thickening component usually associated with chowder. A vegetarian chili also sounds appealing. A mixed salad ($4.25), too bounteous for a small plate, is crisp and fresh, with a good house-made dressing on the side. Other heartier salads ($5.95-$6.95) of the usual variety can serve as a light meal. The sandwiches ($3.95-$5.50) are made with homemade bread and filled with standards such as grilled cheese, tuna or chicken salad, burgers or veggies. All are served with one of several side orders. Supper entrees ($6.95-$7.95) and nightly specials are straightforward favorites. There's even a whole roasted chicken ($10.95) served with vegetables and rice. Two grilled pork chops, tender and juicy, served with mashed potatoes and a vegetable of choice is basic fare, to be sure, but sturdy sustenance at a good price. And meatloaf, the old American favorite that is suddenly turning up on all sorts of menus, humble and haute, is here moist and tender, though lacking in a promised gravy. The accompanying collard greens are delicately seasoned and delicious. And you can't get much more Southern than fried catfish or sausage and grits, along with a homemade biscuit, good but cold as a marble floor. There's nothing pretentious about Sweetwater or its menu, and the restaurant is a fine alternative to the fast-food choices that abound up and down Broad Street. Folks around VCU should wander in for a nourishing

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