It's curious that in an area of Richmond with such a strong sense of uniqueness, the Fan has so many essentially identical restaurants: Buddy's, Barracuda's, Bamboo Cafe, Avalon, Davis & Main, Easy Street and so on. Add to the list 2525 West Main Cafe, a new pub cafe in the Fan-joint genre. Dark wood paneling, dim lighting, black-and-white tile floor, tin ceiling, lots of booths. Regulars.
Though it looks the part, except for the off-the-rack front door, 2525 hasn't always been a Fan joint. Until a few months ago it was an "antiques" store. Which makes it all the more curious that the owners would go out of their way to create such a derivative atmosphere.
Still, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is a lot to celebrate in being able to walk to the local pub for a pint of beer and a good square meal. Well, you could get a pint of beer, maybe, if they had a tap. They don't. So you'll have to settle for 12 ounces from a bottle, brown or green. Plenty do. The bar is home to a rack of regular-seeming characters Tuesday through Saturday, augmented by a large cast of extras on the weekend. Last call is just before 2 a.m.
Recently, however, we learned that 9 p.m. on a Friday is no time to try to eat here. When we arrived the place had been packed for a while. The crowd was well-oiled. Cigarette smoke hung in the air like L.A. smog. (Since this visit, the owner says he has installed an air purifier.) A scraggly regular listed heavily on his barstool and stared endlessly at the two young women down the row. Fun people-watching, for sure, but the commotion and the loud music made it difficult to really focus on food and conversation, even in the booth.
Tuesday night turned out to be a much better experience, and not just because your second dinner is half-price. The regulars were lined up along the bar as we arrived at 6:30 p.m., and only two booths were occupied with diners. We made it three, and when we left at 8 p.m., a party of six and another two-top had arrived. The place seemed much more in control, and that made it a lot easier to enjoy chef Jimmy Whaley's excellent jambalaya ($15) and the salty Okrakoke seafood chowder ($4.25). If you like oysters, Whalen lightly pan-fries a half-dozen plump selections and serves them with a delicious, slightly sweet pepper relish to counter the bivalve's brine. The rest of the menu is predictably publike: burgers, barbecue, salmon. Specials, like the jambalaya, rotate regularly and recently have included seafood pasta and duck.
Occasionally, Whaley's interest in Southern cooking bogs him down: like the Parisian crab cakes served with escargot in a butter sauce ($15) and the pasta fritters ($7). Adding escargot makes the crab cakes seem like pretenders to culture. Maybe just calling them snails would help. And while it makes sense that a Southerner would want to fry his pasta noodles, they just wind up being either too hard or too gummy. Whaley's low-country shrimp, however, cooked with smoked bacon, leeks, tomatoes and shallots, and served with cheese grits ($16) is right-on.
And his homemade desserts strawberry-apple cobbler and chocolate-chip cheesecake on our visit go great with just about anything, especially a cup of coffee before the walk home.
2525 West Main Cafe ($$) 2525 W. Main St. 204-2525 Tuesday - Friday 4 p.m. - 2 a.m. Saturday 6 p.m.- 2 a.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday brunch. Closed
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