I've been writing about food since 2005. I've seen a lot of restaurants come and go, a number of much ballyhooed chefs disappear with a spectacular bang and others with a fading whimper.
The business is tough and it's hard to know what's going to be successful — will the location work, will Richmond be ready for the food, do the owners have the experience and tenacity to make it?
Fortunately, I've seen the best survive. I don't think the stalwarts are lucky — I think they've put in the hard work, done their homework and deployed real talent to turn out exceptional food night after night.
Richmond has always been a city that likes to eat out. Don't let anyone tell you that the recent restaurant boom is new. We've always been a place full of restaurants, from the Tobacco Co. — which, along with Sam Miller's, revived the wasteland of warehouses that was Shockoe Slip — to the spectacular Frog and the Redneck and Carytown's Amici's Ristorante, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Gere's favorite restaurant in the '80s and '90s. I could make a list to prove my point, but it would be a long one and you get the picture. What seems to have been happening lately has always been here, and finally the country has taken notice.
Still, we're always just on the cusp of national fame á la Nashville or Charleston, South Carolina. It's not because our food isn't at the level of those other cities — it most definitely is. But I think it's going to take a few more years before we'll gain the recognition we deserve.
Why? Those monuments. They're going to dog us until the issue is resolved. Our food makes national news, but so do the awful racist things that have happened here — the enormous Confederate flag waving over the highway, the horrific portrait of President Barack Obama in white face and the disgraceful way that we've treated the Lumpkin's Jail site. And those are just the few I can remember right now. Add in the monuments and our food, in light of it all, is, frankly, trivial. These things push Richmond's dining scene off to the side of the national consciousness and until we deal with our history, I can't see that changing.
A long time ago, I wrote a list in Style of 10 things I hated about the Richmond restaurant scene. Now, I'll leave you in my last Short Order with 10 things I love about it.
The revival of failing neighborhoods. We've seen a direct correlation in this town. And that's been an enormous risk. Sure, the rent's cheap, but so many owners have lain awake at night, their savings on the line and their credit cards maxed out, wondering, "Will they come, or will my family and I be on the street next week?" Richmonders have shown some uncharacteristic bravery by venturing into the unknown for something good to eat and then buying up all the real estate on the way back home.
Authentic Mexican. From Tio Pablo to Flora, thank you for hooking the last missing link in the Richmond food scene.
Attracting famous chefs. The more of them who come and discover us, the more their friends are likely to pay a visit as well. And some of them happen to write for national publications. Not only do our chefs deserve the attention, but their restaurants deserve the cash in the bank, too.
Great cocktails. Enough said.
Decent websites. You've really gotten it together, Richmond restaurants. Almost all of you put your hours on the very first page and even include your phone number. And you update your menu to reflect the one you're actually handing out that night. This used to be rare, and we all thank you for — finally — making it the norm.
The grocery stores. What would I have written about all these years without the grocery wars? Even better, the ratcheting up of this insane battle has meant more variety for the home cook. Items that I once had to mail order are now sitting on the shelves of dozens of stores. I may be an Amazon Prime member, but I still like instant gratification.
Breweries. See above.
Information. Thank you for letting me know what you're up to on a regular basis. I can't read minds. Neither can Karri Peifer. Nor can anyone else. A nice long blast of self-congratulatory news is the most valuable kind of email a food journalist can receive. Seriously.
Good service. Gone are the days when a wait person was thrown on the floor and left to figure it out. Owners train and train — and train — their staffs before they open, as well as new employees before their first shift. And it shows, Richmond restaurants, it really shows.
The collegial atmosphere. I hear this over and over from industry professionals coming from out of town. Chefs in Richmond help out other chefs, they hang out together, they form partnerships to open additional restaurants and so many agree, without hesitation, to work together at charity events. I'm not sure why and I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow, I'm positive this makes our food better.