While Roman Gaul was split into three parts, one of Richmond's newest bars and eateries, the Republic, is distinctly divided into two: smoking and nonsmoking. But that's not where the allusions to Rome end. One can become a citizen of the Republic through a three-tiered annual VIP membership program. gladiators ($150), senators ($250) and caesars ($400) get discounts on meals, pint glasses and sweatshirts, individual wine cabinets and VIP line priority, assuring members of entry ahead of the masses. It's perhaps Richmond's first restaurant caste system.
The Republic is the latest project from Rick Lyons (Bandito's, Star-lite) and is in the former Cabo's at Allison and West Broad streets. The interior features two bars, back to back, with a wall between them. Doors on either end separate the smoking and nonsmoking rooms and help somewhat to keep the smoke on one side. On the nonsmoking side, oversized lanterns punctuate the exposed brick wall facing the bar, and large, flat-screen TVs keep sports enthusiasts on the edge of their seats.
Walking through the doors to the smoking side is jolting; it's like entering another world. The music is louder, the air hazy and the space significantly larger. A raised seating area in the back doubles as a stage. The real estate allotted to the smoking side is perhaps an indication of the restaurant's business model.
The menu is a bit more interesting than a typical bar's and features international options. Small-plate starters include chorizo and ricotta canapAcs, ginger- and citrus- infused tuna seviche, saganaki, pirogi and pork empanadas, all less than $10. Flatbread pizzas come with a variety of toppings including prosciutto, goat cheese, chorizo, arugula and ricotta.
My first visit involves indulging from the wide selection of beverages, including the Czech Pilsner Urquell. Next time out, I have lunch, and my dining partner and I split the fried manchego cheese fritters ($6.95) to start, a pleasant surprise. They're kissing cousins to hushpuppies, with the bonus of hot melted cheese inside. The warmth and acidity of the marinara is a nice complement to the richness of the fritters.
The pizza isn't as pleasing. Disappointing thin crust aside, the ricotta topping is a bit too browned, and the fresh arugula on top is a nice flavor boost but seems an afterthought. The signature steak sammy ($7.95) is underwhelming — the GruyA"re-horseradish sauce is mealy and not spicy enough. Sides are excellent though. Asian coleslaw has a nice zip and the onion rings rival my favorites at O'Tooles.
A return visit for dinner has mixed results. The grilled chorizo and ricotta canapAc is better on paper than in execution. The baguette slice is untoasted and the chorizo cold. Piled high with frisAce, it's a pretty dish, but one that would benefit from being heated to allow the spiciness of the sausage to open up and the ricotta to warm. Pork empanadas ($6.95) are stuffed with juicy meat and accompanied by a spicy chili-honey sauce.
My braised short ribs ($9.95) are tough and stringy and served over an almost inedibly pasty polenta. Lamb chops are cooked to order but on the small side and served with uninspired cubes of roasted potatoes and asparagus.
The Republic excels in the bar category, and does a reasonably good job with its small plates. But that's where I'd stop eating and start drinking. The owners have started a cuisine of the month menu (this month features France), that offers food and wine specials from around the world. I hope they give as much thought to the execution as the concept.
The Republic has been savvy in marketing through social media, building loyalty among a community of 1,500-plus fans at last count on Facebook and with a moderate Twitter following. It's a bit of a bread-and-circus effect, hearkening back to the Roman influence, and the masses appear to be amused and satisfied.
The Republic ($-$$)
2053 W. Broad St.
Open daily 10:30 a.m.- 2 a.m.
Lunch until 4 p.m.
Dinner 5-10 p.m.
Smoking and nonsmoking