MacArthur Avenue has grown up smart. There amidst the big trees and postwar houses (some Civil, some Second World) of North Side's Bellevue neighborhood, a community of restaurants, cafes and shops has grown up and, like a good ecosystem, found a niche that benefits both self and other. Eateries, a yoga place, plus the confusingly named import Carytown Books and even a little market, so you don't have to go far to get the essentials. This is the Body MacArthur, and once you're here, there's no real reason to leave.
Dot's Back Inn (4030 MacArthur Ave.) is the dining matriarch of the block, the heart, where arteries are clogged and minds are fogged. The American flag over the door is reflected on the adjacent wall, in the framed WWII-era newspapers and photos of smiling waitresses in Dot's early incarnation. Large cartoon cherries hang here too, tattoos reflecting the inked arms of the waitresses and cooks that tuck no-nonsense charm into their bustle.
The Sunday brunch finds its apotheosis from last night's bar to today's diner in the — how else to say it? — epic breakfast club sandwich. A fried egg takes the place of the turkey, such a simple exchange that the subsequent improvement seems unreal. One of the best things you can eat in this city. The french toast, smelling like a carnival, is four spongy slices mounted by a fist of butter sitting in a pool of melted runoff you could wash a baby in. This is the way to start a week. Add Bloody Mary.
Dot's is a place you leave smelling of, trailing a cloud of, diner pheromones — it will change only partially after the smoking ban goes into effect. Changing times, better behavior — another thing separating us from the carefree era of the photos on the wall.
Stir Crazy Cafe (4015 MacArthur Ave.) serves many purposes — meeting place, study space, a corner to tuck into when you can't go home. It's a coffee shop on its way to a cafe with the addition of a dinner menu and beer and wine. Stir Crazy represents the Body MacArthur in repose. You can order what may well be the best chai in town and fall into an armchair. The breakfast wraps are basic but satisfying: scrambled eggs, in surreally cube-shaped pieces, sausage, onion and cheese. The sandwiches, named for North Side streets, deserve close attention, as there are some intriguing concoctions — the Wilmington's smoked turkey, cheddar and bacon spread with barbecue sauce, for instance. But the joy is in watching the world go by outside — we saw a woman jogging with a jolly-roger flag for a cape; we saw a small gang of kids in Mardi Gras beads and hats swirl in and out like leaves. I took a nap in the window.
Once Upon a Vine (4009 MacArthur Ave.) ... where to begin? With the beer selection? Try anything by Bell's Brewery, especially the Consecrator Doppelboch or Two Hearted Ale. The wine selection? By price, thank you — try the Gatao or other vinho verdes for a delicious sparkler. The cheese? This one has Guinness? The endless flavors of Virginia peanuts, exotic crackers, gummy candies? And where to end? Ah, that's an easy one. Out in the parking lot.
Where you'll find, on weekends, the festively lighted trailer of Jazzbo's Rollin' Gumbo, a silver barnacle on the side of the wine store, another symbiotic relationship. Here I finally got the difference between gumbo and jambalaya (one is roue and okra, the other rice and tomato). Turns out I prefer gumbo, which is both cheap and delicious. It's swell on wheels.
At Shenanigans (4017 Macarthur Ave.), longnecks and “Top Chef” on the flatscreen keep time until the roots music gets started. Here the appetizers have a sort of “What the hell?” feel. Like why get jalapeAño poppers when you can get Buffalo Poppers, which are rolled in spicy wing sauce? Yes, they are remarkable. As are the fried green tomatoes. Burgers won't treat you wrong, but I'm still sad I didn't get the Very Alcoholic Cheesecake.
Zorba's (4026 MacArthur Ave.) has sandwiches tucked into its little space, sure, but that's standard fare. Consider the gyro. Big and messy, it has less of the yogurt tartness of others, but its elements — lamb, tzatziki, onion and tomato — play well together, like the street itself. They please. Zorba's strength is in its pizza, though, which can be delivered or picked up, say, after a few rounds of “Top Chef” at Shenanigans.
Lest you think MacArthur is a fried-food midway, know two things: 1) That's how I roll. 2) Tastebuds American Bistro (4019 MacArthur Ave.). A dim place with a wall of wine bottles, it's the Body MacArthur's quiet dignity. Open for dinner, the $16 prix fixe is outstanding — the spinach salad with pickled red onions and goat cheese is simple and delightful, and the fettuccine with Bolognese ragout is a subtle dish that ranks up there with Mamma 'Zu. For apps, eggplant pomodoro is the Continental cousin of the fried green tomatoes, perfectly crisp and flavorful. As for regular entrees, the Sicilian Marsala shrimp, all tomatoes and capers, makes your eyes roll back every third bite or so, though my companion kept forking my fettuccine and eventually there was a good old-fashioned plate swap. Our waiter was bemused. Get him talking, by the way. He has good stories.
Like the street itself. A place that makes it despite the lack of market research, despite the nameless, aimless development out west. Richmond's real stories are told in these loose conglomerations of neighborhoods and businesses finding their own place, trying to fit together. MacArthur Avenue couldn't be anywhere. It could only be here. S