There weren't a lot of options for vegetarians in the mid-'70s other than grilled cheese and mashed potatoes, so Michael King and Eric Walters filled a niche with the vegetarian restaurant Grace Place. They took it to cult status and probably served more celebrities than anywhere else in Richmond -- from A-list actors to indie-music icons. Walters left to open City Market, and then Ellwood Thompson's, and King joined his friend after Grace Place closed a decade ago to ramp up the store's take-out from good to exceptional. Now at the helm of Relish and its delectable hot bar, King makes us remember that the first person in town to tell us to eat fresh, local, seasonal food is still the master of that culinary philosophy.
The city's best chefs depend on quality-minded farmers for their favorite fresh ingredients, and it's a growing list. Most salute the work of Sandy and Rossie Fisher at Brookview Farm, Jo and Rob Pendergraph of Manakintowne Specialty Growers and Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden for bringing visibility to the cause. Now a small corps of producers offers fine meats, produce, artisanal cheeses and breads to restaurants, farmer's markets and to consumers through subscription services. Never has the quality been so high and the interest so wide-ranging.
Jannequin Bennett, more likely to eat at a good ethnic hole-in-the-wall than a trendy café, elevated hotel food at the Jefferson into a prize-winning universe. Now she's using her vegetarian know-how to do the same at Ellwood Thompson's. She believes Richmond restaurateurs' concerns about slick chains at new malls raised the bar for chefs and created more knowledgeable diners. Nowadays when a patron encounters gnocchi, the response no longer is "What's that?" Also, she credits newcomer Northerners with bringing a heightened appreciation for international cuisines and organic food.