Eating Your Way Through Richmond, VA
“Why are you going to Richmond?”
I got asked this question so many more times than I care to remember before taking the hour and a half flight from Newark into Virginia’s capital.
Mainly because I have learned that often times some of the best experiences can be found in the places you least expect to find them, and because I was invited by Richmond Regional Tourism to eat…and I love to eat!
I kind of expected to taste some pretty yummy food, but what I didn’t expect was that I would meet such passionate people, who in this community not only all know each other but also really support each other.
The immediate story I kept hearing about was that of Sub Rosa Bakery, a newly arrived favorite in town with a strong following. Despite being new in town, the brother and sister team, Evrim and Evin Dogu, were feeling the love right away, but never more so than when their bakery and upper level home caught fire this past April (2013), causing significant damage that forced them to close. At this point, their community of customers, but most importantly of fellow restauranteurs, came together and held benefits, dinners, and more to raise money to help them get back on their feet. They hope to reopen later this summer. I saw the devastation from the fire, met Evin as she toured us around, and my heart would’ve felt nothing but sadness if not for knowing that Richmond foodies had their back and were just as eager to get them back in business. That’s pretty rare in the world of food, when often times everything and everyone is so cut throat.
But instead of meeting overly ambitious, overly eager food providers, I keep meeting people who were just trying to live the dream, their dream, to the fullest. Doing what they love and more than happy to share it with anyone who would sit at one of their tables or walk into their shop.
Tanya Cauthen, of Belmont Butchery, found her way to this happy place, first as a food writer, then as a Swiss-trained chef, and now as the owner of the most celebrated, award-winning butchery in town. To watch Tanya work, one gains a new-found respect and admiration for her craft – if only we were so talented. Instead, us simple folks must find our joy in her shop, where we can find artisanal hand-cut meats and house-cured sausages.
When you go to Richmond, you must drink (everywhere, but especially) at two specific places:
Secco Wine Bar, owned by the fabulously witty and sassy Julia Battaglini. But don’t just drink whatever wine.
Give in to the experience by asking Julia to take you on a journey (she will love it, but you will more) of perfect pairings to whatever awesome Chef Tim Bereika is serving. You will have a nice selection to choose from among their list of award-winning Old World wines and rare finds.
Mekong is a Vietnamese restaurant owned by An Bui, who also happens to be a huge fan and connoisseur of everything craft beer-related and whose devotion to the same has led Mekong to be voted the “Best Beer Bar” by CraftBeer.com. His connection to the craft beer community and key players, and his continual support of them, provides him with access to both serve and play with various beer flavors and blends, all of which his guests often benefit the most from.
If you have a chance to meet An, be ready. His laughter and happy personality is contagious. Oh, and if you really, really love beer, then check out the Richmond Brewery Tour. Totally worth it, as this is a really vibrant scene in Richmond and you will find many favorites.
If you want to meet a local food celebrity, then you have to stop in to either Pasture or Comfort, co-owned by Chef Jason Alley, who along with Michele Jones (and Ry Marchant at Pasture) and Chris Chandler (at Comfort), are taking the Richmond food scene by storm and finding ways to make sure that their communities and neighbors benefit as much from their success as possible.
Everyone I spoke to about Jason told me how he was funny and kind. Especially kind. How he goes into Richmond neighborhoods that others might not really even be considering and he brings good food to the area. Food that bring consumers; consumers that spend money and keep coming back for more, helping to transform and grow that once neglected neighborhood.
After meeting Jason, Chris, and Michele, I have to agree that I fell a bit in love, with not only their kick-ass food and spirits, but also with their passion and knowledge. Dining as often as I did with Jason and Michele especially was a highlight for me, without a doubt, as I adore anyone who can take the pretentiousness out of the culinary experience and focus it all on just bringing forth good food that encourages all the things that only good food can.
Another good soul and a symbol, in my eyes, of a foodie rock star goddess is Kendra Feather, co-owner of several eateries in Richmond – all successful, all unique, and all her dreams come true. They are The Roosevelt, WPA Bakery, Garnett’s, and Ipanema (vegetarian). I got a pretty neat t-shirt from The Roosevelt, which I’ve been fighting my husband and teen away from, but most importantly, I had a divine dining experience. This is a perfect date night spot, or spot to come out with your friends for a nice evening out. Great space, really good drinks, and friendly service. You can easily spend hours here enjoying yourself. I got to chat with Chef Lee Gregory, who recently made an appearance as the guest of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival, and got to hear about his whole philosophy on community, food, family, and friendship which I found endearing and refreshing. There’s something about all of it that just makes the food so dang good and the ambiance so dang special.
Now, if you want to see where all these awesome people hang out after hours, on weekends, or when looking to relax, then you need to head on over to Heritage. Owned by Emilia Sparatta and her husband, Chef Joe Sparratta. Along with Emilia’s brother, who often works the bar, they run that special place in the community where people – including other chefs and restauranteurs – like to come in and spend some time for a drink or celebration. And I get it. Not only are they charming, welcoming, and warm, the food is, well, really you’d have to experience it yourself. Start with brunch…and no matter what anyone says, have the Big Hot Mess (bbq pulled pork, potatoes, smoked jalapeno cream cheese, tomato aioli
add soft poached egg). You can thank me later.
Sounds like a lot to eat…but it’s so worth it. Just do me a favor, before you leave town, pick up some cookies and cakes at Hispania Bakery, owned by la bella Maria Onsel at the South of James Farmers Market. Trust me. It would be unfortunate to miss out on her Spicy Chocolate cookie sandwiches or her Mini Guava cheesecakes.
So, why Richmond, VA?
I would say for its history and ability to stay true to itself and embrace its past in a way that helps educate others.
I would say for its quirky and fun neighborhoods.
I would say for its love of pimento cheese (thanks to filmmaker Nicole Lang of “Pimento Cheese, Please!” and Jason Alley for the intro).
I would say because there’s something to be said when a chef once dubbed “The Disappearing Chef” for his nomadic spirit, finally decides to set down his chef’s knives there, opening up Peter Chang China Cafe (recently named by Travel and Leisure one of the nations best Chinese restaurants) and call Richmond his home.
I would say because of the kindness of strangers who are generous with their friendship and their food.
I would say because a visit here is confirmation that as long as there are good friends, good food, and good drinks, you will never feel too far from home. And that is always a feeling worth experiencing where ever your travels might take you.
Many thanks to Richmond Regional Tourism and their partners for their wonderful hospitality and even more wonderful food. Till we eat again!
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