There are many focal points at the Fat Dragon, a Cantonese restaurant about to open on the Boulevard, but one of the sweetest is the affable, Mandarin-speaking chef Jin Zhao, nicknamed Fei (pronounced Fay). He's already a fixture in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes at the former Stronghill Dining Co., where the handcrafted woodwork has returned to its owners and an entirely new concept and aesthetic are nearing completion.
Witness the walnut communal table crafted by Joe Konopka of Homegrown Woodworks from a tree that fell at Willow Oaks Country Club, and the reclaimed barn siding, Moroccan-style lanterns, wallpapered lounge and walnut drink rail. A long bar, embedded with some 20,000 Chinese lucky coins, dominates the big corner window — not far from where the Redskins summer training grounds and a bunch of new apartments are in progress.
It's the fourth restaurant in four years from owner Chris Tsui of Eat Restaurant Partners and operations director Ren Mefford, who appear to be happiest at this stage of a project, putting the pieces together and generating the first round of buzz. Just as it did at the Blue Goat in Westhampton, Tsui's design sense kicks in with handcrafted metal and woods, a mix of table heights and styles, and a large-scale art piece still to be revealed. Tiffany Jeremiah and Les Stinson are assisting with décor in the building, which started as a Mack truck dealership in 1928 and later held a yacht company.
Mefford says Fat Dragon will serve all local products, without chemicals or monosodium glutamate. He notes that the kitchen has no freezer — a rarity in Chinese restaurants. The newest Kolpak tap system is primed for two dozen craft beers. Tickets for opening night will be given away in a public drawing, a gesture of egalitarian welcome that fits the owners' intentions for this casual, moderately priced gathering place.
While Tsui tastes a noodle and mushroom dish that Fei's proposing, he nods in appreciation of its fennel and coriander seasonings and fresh-rolled dough. Tsui's finger on the pulse of Richmond dining seems to be lucky even without the deep-set coins in this newest of his bars. Look for old-school neon signs to go up soon, announcing Fat Dragon Chinese Kitchen and Bar at 1200 N. Boulevard. 354-9888. fatdragonrva.com.
Teahouse in trees: A new fall menu is in effect at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's picturesque teahouse. Other local spots announcing their autumn flavor shift include Chez Foushee, a downtown treasure, and Carver's Magpie, where Owen Lane's amuse-bouche are a chef's salvo into cooler nights.
Chef out: Aaron Hoskins has announced his separation from the kitchen at 2113 because of "creative differences" and a management shift to a more casual menu at the Shockoe Bottom club. Hoskins left the Empress earlier this year for similar reasons. That Broad Street cafe later closed.
Branching out: A big player in the local barbecue circuit has opened a new location with another on the way in Midlothian. Tuffy Stone's Q Barbeque is serving at 11871 W. Broad St. in the Corner at Short Pump shopping center. The 130-seat space has heated outdoor tables and serves award-winning brisket, ribs, smoked meats and Southern sides daily from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. qbarbeque.com.
Year in: Chef Matthew Tlusty and owner John Van Peppen at Shockoe Bottom's beef palace Arcadia are pleased to hit the one-year mark. To celebrate, they're doing an "all-out" dinner Nov. 15 that's now taking reservations. arcadiarichmond.com.
Bring it: BlowToad now delivers pizza and beer within a two-mile radius of Carytown. The restaurant's full menu and 100-item beer list are available for free delivery, although beer must be dropped off before midnight. A couple of recent pizza specials at BlowToad are worth noting: jerk chicken with green apples and mozzarella, and prime rib with bacon and cheddar. Beer choices change weekly and are celebrated with "kick the keg" festivities at the bar or the new red-topped tables. 355-8623. 2907 W. Cary St. blowtoad.com.
RVA Beer Week: Tasting events and beer tours take place all over town Nov. 2-11. Get more information at facebook.com/tastethelocal.
Passersby might notice a re-branding in progress at the former Rowland Fine Dining — those last two words have been blacked out on its front awning and from its approach in general. Owners Bruce and Virginia Rowland, who opened the business seven years ago at 2132 W. Main St., are introducing more appetizers, specials and happy hour prices to meet customer demand. They've also put skillet pizzas on the menu, a fail-safe option to widen the audience.
Rowland is known for house-made desserts and for the owners' presence whenever the business is open. In Richmond it's rare for husband and wife to run a restaurant kitchen together. "We are a couple," Virginia Rowland says, "and we share ideas to bring to our customers. Together, we are in the kitchen and we are dedicating ourselves to quality and consistency." That's despite economic forces that are challenging and a city food scene that's crowded. "There are too many restaurant openings and closings in Richmond," she says. "The population cannot support this many places. It's like we are in D.C."
The business will be open all seven nights during Richmond Restaurant Week, Oct. 22-28, capping meals with Virginia Rowland's chocolate torte with caramelized pears, and a desire to please the city's often-fickle food audience. 257-9885.
Campaign for 'cue: Similarly, Richard Cacciotti at Benny's BBQ in Stony Point Shopping Center is calling for more business, using a Facebook plea to keep his place afloat. Live music, a full bar and other attractions aren't doing enough so far, he says, but "my chopped-to-order barbecue is the best in the city." 3044 Stony Point Road. 320-7447. bennysbbqva.com.
Wine away: River City Cellars owner Julia Battaglini is closing the retail wine shop in Carytown after a difficult year that forced several other wine retailers here to close as well. She'll use the space at 2931 W. Cary St. to support Secco Wine Bar next door and private parties. Secco continues to be one of the city's food destinations with small plates and well-priced beverage offerings from noon to midnight daily, under chef Tim Bereika. seccowinebar.com.
Beer here: As soon as Oktoberfest events are over — and there are stein-raising promotions all over town — brew lovers will move on to Richmond Beer Week, Nov. 2-11. (Note that it spans two weekends.) Look for local beer samplings, beer-related films, open houses at breweries, invitationals, bar crawls and parades, beer invasions and beer dinners, and some fundraisers thrown in. See details at greatbrewers.com.
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While others dream of candy corn, chocolatier Tim Gearhart does the seasonal sweets thing one better. His chocolate caramel apple, a local Golden Delicious, is dipped in dark chocolate caramel, and then in dark Venezuelan chocolate and spiced pecans. The nationally acclaimed Gearharts Fine Chocolates is trying out a limited run on the confections Oct. 29-31 by pre-order, for pick up at the Richmond and Charlottesville stores at $8.95 each. 282-1822. gearhartschocolates.com.
Now serving: Heritage, a new and much-anticipated restaurant and bar from Joe and Emilia Sparatta and Mattias Hagglund, is open at 1627 W. Main St. for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday. 353-4060.
Cue the meat: Paul Hubbard, one of the founders of Church Hill's barbecue destination Alamo, is moving west. He's sold the business and is about to open Deep Run Roadhouse on Lauderdale Drive in his childhood stomping grounds. Hubbard just returned from Missouri to pick up a giant smoker for the roadhouse's array of pork and beef barbecue, ribs and brisket. Watch this space for details on an opening date.
Doughnut wars: Dixie Donuts in Carytown continues to sell out most of its flavors every day, and is making space for potential seating. A time to add Korean chicken and frites to the menu is still to be determined. A few blocks west, Dunkin Donuts is converting a former 7-Eleven store into a doughnut shop, bringing another franchise to the neighborhood along with the recently opened and quite busy Panera Bread and Fresh Market.
Dinner with democracy: The fourth FeastRVA dinner, this time with an environmental theme, is Sunday, Oct. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at Page Bond Gallery in the Fan. Lamplighter Roasting Co. is catering; diners contribute $25 for a meal with drinks and hear pitches from people with green ideas. Feast RVA's mantra is "identifying and rewarding the variety of creative projects coming out of Richmond. Through recurring public dinners we democratically fund new and emerging art makers." At the end of the evening, diners vote and one winner emerges with the loot. feastrva.com.
Tapas felices: Maximo's Spanish and Italian Bistro in Shockoe Bottom offers new lunch and happy-hour menus and has expanded its happy hours. Tapas of bruschetta, catfish fingers, fried eggplant and ham bocata (sandwiches) are $5 and less; some wines are $4 and beer is $3. maximosbistro.com.
Closed: Bistro R, which changed menus, owners and location a year ago, has closed at 9681 W. Broad St.
Big is In: Fans of Herman Baskerville were distressed at the closing of the Corner Bar and Grill in Carver a four years ago — the place is now thriving as the Magpie — but they’ve found big Herm again in a daytime feeding format. He’s running Big Herm’s Kitchen at 315 N. Second St. at the former Nate’s Taco Truck Stop. Baskerville, the personable cook with the Southern comfort style, serves wings with “ooo-wee” sauce, catfish, Philly cheese steak and barbecue sandwiches, burgers and bologna, with sides including collards and mashed sweet potatoes, all for carryout. Weekdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 643-0202. bighermscatering.com.
Chopped: Sample, the small-plates and tech-oriented cafe at 1 N. Morris St., closed after a short run; good critiques for the food and assertive social media marketing couldn’t drive enough business to sustain it.
Shackleford’s, a longtime Short Pump-area restaurant, also announced it will stop serving on Oct. 29. The business had other locations in Midlothian and Williamsburg that closed recently; the 19-year run at 10496 Ridgefield Parkway ends with a month-long celebration of staff, vendors and clientele, says owner Kirk Poore. Shacklefords.com.
On the shell: Beginning Oct. 4, Barrel Thief rolls out First Thursday oyster and muscadet nights through the winter, featuring Rappahannock River oysters by the pound and demonstrations from champion shucker Deborah Pratt of Urbanna. Also, third Monday wine dinners with chef Sam Hall’s three-course meal are $28 plus tax and tip, by reservation. 5805 Patterson Ave. 612-9232. Barrelthiefwine.com.
Local-born star: Richmond native Eliza Gavin is a contestant on this season’s “Top Chef” series on the Bravo network. She’s a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who owns 221 South Oak Bistro in Telluride, Colo.
Drink to Dale: To pair with the Dale Chihuly glass exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the bar at Amuse restaurant on the museum’s third floor rolls out themed cocktails and a beer menu that’s all Virginian. One exception on the brew list honors the artist: Dale’s Pale Ale, of Longmont, Colo., served in a can. Among the specialty drinks is the ice cube, “a cocktail magic trick” with ingredients that change daily, in limited quantities, for $16. The bar’s happy hour begins daily at 2:30 p.m.