A soul-food mainstay in historic Jackson Ward for almost 10 years until its tax-related closing in February, Croaker's Spot opened several months ago on Hull Street in the developing Manchester neighborhood. Under the watchful eye of owner Neverett “Sugar-Foot” Eggleston III, it hasn't lost an ounce of soul. While plans are in the works to open another Croaker's Spot on the site of the Eggleston Hotel across the street from the original, for now devotees can take a short trip across the river to satisfy their cravings.
On a recent Saturday night my wife and I find a bustling scene at 10th and Hull streets, a stretch otherwise quiet and definitely transitional. Crowds wait for takeout on the street in noisy conversation and the atmosphere is infectious. One of the best design improvements from the Jackson Ward space is the separation of the takeout area from the restaurant — it was always hard to tell how many people were waiting for a table when things meshed together.
The energy from the sidewalk carries into the dining room while we wait for a table. Funky R&B music fills the air and smiles abound. With exposed brick, a colored-concrete floor and high ceilings covered with mismatched former floorboards, the atmosphere is hip. While we stand in the bar area, hostess Sherita makes conversation and Ivan the expediter, an eight-year Croaker's veteran, drifts over from the kitchen, giving us some inside scoop on a new dish to try.
We're seated in the spacious dining room with a wood floor and large paintings by R. Ross Browne. One is of the famous Richmond civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill, and another bears a striking resemblance to a young Diana Ross.
My appetizer features plump and briny oysters fried crisp and served with not only cocktail sauce but also a tangy horseradish version. Susannah orders a Croaker's specialty — french fries smothered in the restaurant's signature onions and peppers, tangy tomato sauce and melted cheese — not haute cuisine but satisfying. The fried seafood platters do not disappoint. Three lake trout are served fried and covered with peppers and onions as well as a slightly spicy red sauce with butterfly shrimp on top ($14.95). Sides include creamy cheese grits, cabbage and a huge hunk of moist and sweet corn bread.
We took the tip from the kitchen in ordering a secret dish that has not yet made the menu. Bourbon Street pasta ($16.99) is a decadent blend of shrimp, chicken and kielbasa in a spicy Creole cream sauce with hints of thyme and cayenne served over fettuccine. Carlton, the chef behind this creation, comes over to get our feedback on his new dish. Four thumbs up.
It's hard to leave Croaker's Spot without one of its towering pieces of homemade cake. The caramel cake is a fitting end to our evening: Three layers of moist yellow cake are slathered with a caramel frosting that reminds me of birthdays at my grandmother's.
A return trip for lunch finds a quieter street scene but plenty of energy inside when we're greeted by three or four staffers who comment on our return. New England-style clam chowder ($3.99) comes in a tureen-sized bowl in which tender clams swim in a creamy broth accented with fresh onions and potatoes. It's a classic soup, done very well. A Caesar salad ($4.99) is equally large and could have been shared by a few more people. Lunch sandwiches include a range of seafood po' boys as well as options for land lovers. We opt for a crab cake sandwich ($11.99) and a fish po' boy ($8.99). The crab cake is unadulterated and juicy except for a hint of Old Bay-style seasoning, and the tender fish sandwich features fried filets with mayo, lettuce and tomatoes. If they were served on better bread than sub rolls, I would make them part of a weekly pilgrimage, but that could get dangerous.
Croaker's Spot is alive and well in Manchester, and the service is stellar. I have had few better service experiences in Richmond. The folks at Croaker's have a good time and show their guests an equally good one.
Croaker's Spot ($-$$)
1020 Hull St.
Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Thursday-Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Saturday Noon-10 p.m.
Sunday 1-7 p.m.