Richmond is a food-crazy town, but it hasn't always been this way. Folks here were long contented with their "Stuffed Cougar" and church-lady cookbooks, or any recipe that called for a can of Campbell's or a cup of Duke's. There was no thought of banh mi or Fernet or seviche, no culinary use of the word artisanal, no fame and swagger attached to chefs. A general wariness of the exotic extended even to bagels. Richmond food seemed happily stuck in time, balancing ham's saltiness with corn-syrup pies and Brunswick stew with hot-buttered rolls. Dinner conversations weren't all about food, pictures weren't taken of daily meals and restaurants mostly did the job without knocking off the socks.
So of course things have changed — and the numbers of excellent eateries show it.
Although French chef Paul Elbling gets much of the credit for raising fine-dining consciousness in this city, more vital to the cause has been the love-him or hate-him chef Jimmy Sneed, whose Shockoe restaurant the Frog and the Redneck set a new standard here and brought Julia Child back more than once because the buzz was about flavor and a modern way of getting it. Talents sprang from that kitchen like polliwogs, still impressing guests at some of the city's best restaurants and sending their sous chefs on to their own winning ventures. In the past two decades, cooks and customers have dramatically raised expectations, whisking this scene into ever more tangible motion.
There wasn't always a food press corps, and a delightfully friendly one at that, certainly not a frenzied rush to announce each new food truck, grocery store, corner bistro or menu change. But food knowledge and a general infatuation with the subject has become the currency of the times. Food is the common denominator — but also too often elitist and even ridiculous, and consuming it sometimes seems more competitive sport than act of grace.
Those who cook for a living tend to be fun-loving, giving people, or some were until they realized how difficult the job of pleasing customers has become. All of the online snark and scrutiny that accompanies each opening sets up an almost impossible dynamic — restaurants must be hot out of the gate, and remain hot, in order to stay in the race. Some restaurants fail in far less time than it took to decorate them. Others limp along until rumors on social media suck the life out of them.
And yet many hundreds of Richmond restaurants thrive and some spawn successful off-shoots. Some are deep into their 20th year or more, keeping traditions alive through hard work and good instincts. They may be mostly unsung, but their owners are putting their kids through college, and they're rarely tweeting about the plates they're dishing out each night. Or they've begun to do that to stay current, another sign of the times that doesn't necessarily lead to better food or even a better brand.
The pendulum might swing back, as underground status carries its own appeal with various subsets of the dining culture. Richmond celebrates its hole in the wall, its dive bar and its brave little upstart as well as its vogue cuisine. There's reason to cheer slow foods and craft brews and farm finds and wild game and soft shells and greasy burgers and agile service and a thrilling cadre of chefs who delight in the most minute details of making food magic. Finally, in Richmond there's uncompromised vegan dining and gluten-free and true local ingredients and in rare instances compostable packaging to take it all home. There's a constellation of world foods and a resurgence of meticulous craftsmanship with less random experimentation and more allegiance to seasonality.
These are delicious and wide-ranging times, #RVAdine, and there's ample reason to savor the results of change. Here's hoping that for every year of good dining a customer enjoys, a contribution to Feedmore or Tricycle Gardens or Positive Vibe or a food-desert cause follows, so that all of this momentum works for a greater good.
Thank you for sharing the table, and happy eating. S
Finally, Supper: It was back in January when Rick Lyons hoped to open the bigger side of his raging Lunch café in Scott's Addition. Now he has an official opening date for the public: June 10, which is the big reveal of Supper at 1215 Summit Ave.
He's hired eight new line cooks to help turn out a menu of smoked meats — bison with wild mushrooms, smoked and shaved pork brisket with Asian slaw, for example — and Southern specialties. Seating capacity is almost tripled, with 45 new seats in Supper, and expanded hours, from breakfast to dinner daily. 353-0111. lunchorsupper.com.
Strip search: Of all the food groups that generate excitement among the RVAdine community, bacon is No. 1. And during this Bacon Week in Richmond, which runs June 2-8, two dozen of the city's most delectable dining spots are putting the prized pork product on their menu in wildly creative ways for $5 a dish. Explore the possibilities for bacon bliss at baconweekrva.com.
Food and Drink Editor Deveron Timberlake is passing the torch after covering the Richmond dining scene for nine years at Style Weekly.