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The Hill Café puts a twist on tradition in a neighborhood institution on Church Hill.

A Good Neighbor


is a perfect opportunity for a neighborhood eatery. It's in a densely populated, urban area, within walking distance for hundreds of people, and an established location. It's had its ups and downs since its inception a decade or so ago and, despite the vicissitudes of owners and management, this Church Hill corner has stayed lighted, proof that there is demand for a convenient restaurant.

It's perhaps burning with a bit of a brighter flame these days. Veteran Shockoe Slip chef-restaurateur Michelle Williams, who co-owns The Hard Shell and its neighbor Europa and who is a resident of Church Hill, has taken over the reins of the Hill Café with co-owners Ted Wallof and Jared Golden and is giving this cozy dining room a new life. There's no particular need to have a "destination" restaurant here; there are plenty of them in Shockoe Slip and the Bottom. A neighborhood cafe calls for friendliness and comfort, for dependability and value. Its lifeblood is repeat business, not an exotic menu or gimmicks.

Chef Williams has put her stamp on the current menu, which perhaps offers fancier food than it needs to, but she avoids clichés by giving almost everything a twist, which probably annoys traditionalists, but they ought to get over it. There are lots of choices from simple salads, soups and burgers to more exotic and trendy entrees of seafood and meat.

[image-1](Stacy Warner / starters ($3-$7), the so-called "small plates," are almost all good for sharing — homemade potato chips, coconut shrimp, a hummus plate, crab and artichoke dip, bean cakes, a mushroom and cheese quesadilla. A couple of bean cakes, with both black and white beans, are given heat with a red-pepper puree and cooled with lime-scallion sour cream — a nice appetizer on a hot August night. Salads range from a simple house mixture ($3.50) to those that make a satisfying summer entree, such as one with portabella mushrooms with Asian seasonings ($6), or a rare beef sirloin salad over spinach with fried onions and blue-cheese dressing ($8). A seasonal salad of local tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, spinach and basil is a good rendition of a classic, but "local" is broad when it comes to tomatoes. The best ones come from our own garden or an obliging neighbor or friend. Rarely does a restaurant tomato measure up.

For the sandwich crowd at lunch or in the evening, the buns are warmed with everything from barbecue or grilled tuna to veggies ($5-$9).

The "larger plates" ($13-$18) are dressed in Asian, Southwestern, or merely fashionable clothes. Grilled tuna is served over pasta with vegetables, ginger, cilantro and a curry broth. Crab cakes are paired with Smithfield ham and accompanied by a spicy pineapple remoulade. Williams, of course, understands shellfish, and generally marries it to more passive partners, letting these attention-getters have the stage. I [image-2](Stacy Warner / the chile- and tomato-glazed grilled shrimp and scallops served with a slice of corn, potato and goat-cheese torta, a nice foil to the zesty shrimp but short on goat cheese for my cheese-addicted palate. One of the evening specials was good: herb-roasted beef tenderloin with asparagus and delicious grits — coarsely ground and tasting of the essence of corn. Pork ribs are painted with a sweet-sour sauce, and pork tenderloin is perked up with a gingered applesauce. And for the real comfort-food seekers, half of a honey-glazed roasted chicken with mashed potatoes is bound to hit the comfort zone.

Of the several desserts, we settled on a thick wedge of coconut custard pie, more of an icebox variety than the butter-rich, golden custards that used to be a restaurant staple.

The Hill Café has a wonderful patina of age, a kind of urban permanence. Those who frequent the corner restaurants of the Fan will certainly feel at home in this typical turn-of-the century space that keeps on working, despite the weird inconveniences of adaptive reuse. Let's hope the Hill Café continues to be a neighborhood institution.

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