When it opened five years ago, CafAc Gutenberg brought a refined quality to a space long known for the crunchy hipster scene of Jeff Ruggles' Main Street Grill. Unfortunately, in Gutenberg's second year it faced the floodwaters of Gaston that made Main Street seem more like the Grand Canal in Venice, but without the glamour. The cafAc bravely led the post-flood resurgence of Shockoe Bottom and an influx of new restaurants like Sheba, Lulu's, Alex's, Halligan Bar and Aziza's. Most recently, financial issues have threatened the cafAc's longevity. But the doors have stayed open, much to Richmond's benefit.
Modeled after European cafAcs and named with a nod to the printed word, it is an ideal space to pick up a book and drink a cup of whatever strikes your fancy (Illy coffee served all of the usual ways, teas and a great selection of wine and beer.) But you'd be missing the full experience if you limited yourself to beverages, because Jen Mindell's and Garrett Berry's eclectic menu gives reason to visit three times a day. They are an interesting pair — the former vegan and the carnivore — and they've designed a menu that meets the needs of people who eat most anything.
Brunch seems to be the busiest time of day. An eclectic mix of Bottom dwellers and others chatter over coffee, omelettes, panini, French toast and waffles. The pastry case is delightful, and my son's apple turnover was crispy, warm and sweet — a perfect fall treat. The 17th Street scramble gives the devil's mess a few blocks away at Millie's a run for its money. A combination of scrambled eggs, fresh spinach, peppers and potatoes, it's topped with sharp cheddar, tomato salsa and crA"me fraiche. A chicken, bacon, and Swiss omelet is elevated by apple-wood-smoked bacon. Are the vegan biscuits with sausage gravy an homage to the Main Street Grill past, or to Mindell's vegan roots? In any case, they fall short of the real thing, like several of the mock dishes that pepper the menu. I prefer to eat meat that is meat and vegetables that are vegetables. Menus run into trouble when vegetables appear in meat's clothing.
A visit at lunchtime saw slow service (maybe it seemed slower because I had a short window for lunch) and another odd combination: A butternut squash soup overindulgently combined a favorite fall vegetable with chicken stock, pork and duck fat as well. More successfully, the bella panini combines crab with tomatoes, mozzarella and homemade aioli. Other sandwiches include a unique pulled-pork French dip and German specialties including bratwurst and German potato salad.
The mood felt very different at night — a warm glow radiated from the orange walls, and candles and jazz lit the air. We started with a refreshing vegan Caesar salad. Romaine hearts were mixed with hearts of palm and grilled tofu and topped with a piquant lemon caper dressing — one of the best salads I have had in town. I had a hard time choosing between two fish specials, partly because our waiter was passionate about everything on the menu. The Australian barramundi won out over the sea bass — it was pan-fried and served over roasted romaine and an herbed lentil salad. A carrot puree and light mustard cream sauce united the flavors, and baby radishes elegantly finished the ensemble.
I quickly learned that “Gutenberger” translates to “great burger” — big, juicy and flavorful — and definitely not vegan. Yukon hash, a side for many of the sandwiches, was adequately peppery but average.
Desserts are outstanding: The carrot cake is moist and dense with a hint of nutmeg and a drizzle of mango coulis. The affagato features a choice of gelato topped with several dollops of whipped cream, and accompanied with a shot of espresso — a double dose of caffeine and sugar. It was worth every calorie and being awake all night, according to my dessert-loving wife. Banoffi pie is a decadent combination of an extra-thick graham cracker crust followed by layers of caramel custard, vanilla cream and sliced bananas topped with a drizzle of dark chocolate.
CafAc Gutenberg has earned its admirers with consistently flavorful food and improved service. It celebrates lingering over a conversation or coffee or a meal. It feels genuine and real, perhaps because it has lived a lifetime in a few short years. Indeed, it's the little cafAc that could, and hopefully will for years to come.
CafAc Gutenberg ($-$$)
1700 E. Main St. $-$$
Weekdays: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Weekends: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.