Food & Drink 

The Best of Richmond

Best restaurant to open or re-open: Cabo's Corner Bisto

Bill and Amy Cabaniss had a winning combination in Cabo's: surprisingly good food and spirits in a cozy Fan location. A location that for more than a decade was plagued with high turnover. But Cabo's carved out a name for itself, and instead of closing down, moved into a bigger space on Broad Street. Now Cabo's features the same distinctive food in a space that makes suburbanites feel cosmopolitan. And if you like your jazz on the side you're in luck. Tuesday through Saturday nights you can hear live jazz, blues or the croonings of Steve Bassett. Newcomers Siné in Shockoe Slip and West End's Patina Grill tied for second place in this category.

Best established restaurant

Mamma 'Zu wins once again as Richmond's best established restaurant. Owner/chef Ed Vasaio sounds genuinely humbled by the continued popularity of his at times chaotic little Italian restaurant in Oregon Hill. Beyond the freshest foods and expert preparation, it is that delightful disorder that is the bistro's attraction. Patrons, Vasaio says, "can experience chaos and go back to their orderly world."

Havana '59 in Shockoe Bottom and Millie's Diner in Church Hill also were reader favorites.

Best coffee

It was Dr. Evil's headquarters of world domination in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." Its ubiquitous presence is as insidious a force as Windows 98. Its logo beckons like the mother ship calling to legions of caffeine-addicted Gen X zombies. But they make a damn good latte, don't they?

Yes, Starbuck's is your No. 1 choice when it's time for a cup o' joe. Well, a grande half-decaf caramel joe. With five locations in the Richmond area, the java giant has won your loyalty over local hangouts like World Cup and Carytown Coffee and Tea, which placed second and third respectively.

Best steak

Ruth's Chris Steak House is the big winner in this carnivorous category. The secret to this upscale chain's sizzling steaks, says general manager Paul Sorenson, is a broiler that sears the steaks at 1,800 degrees. "We just put salt and pepper on them and it just kind of sears the outside and locks everything in." And it helps, he says, that they start with the finest cuts of beef available. Sorensen says the restaurant sells about 1,700 steaks a week.

Outback Steakhouses on West Broad Street and Huguenot Road and Buckhead's near Patterson and Parham also scored high with steak lovers.

Best vegetarian restaurant

Despite one scathing "It all sucks!" remark, most Richmonders reply that there are tasty meat-free alternatives in our fine city. Main Street Grill catches the carrot again this year proving herbivores are still loyal to the Shockoe Bottom mainstay. It's an appropriate designation considering the restaurant's nestled on the edge of Farmer's Market where the freshest homegrown produce is an arm's length away. Ellwood Thompson's ranks second and newcomer Ipanema, in the heart of VCU on Grace Street, earns an honorable third place. One reader makes a case for Baskin Robbins — two scoops for those who do dairy.

Best inexpensive lunch

Take your pick: delicious fried chicken, sandwiches, pizza, a packed salad bar or sushi. Ukrop's has it all, and it's all cheap, usually right around $5.

Downtowners and the fast-food set made their voices heard in the balloting, too. Christopher's Runaway Gourmet, the popular, mouth-watering (and cost-effective) Main Street food cart tied for second place in this category, with budget franchise champions Taco Bell, home of all manner of tacos and burritos for very little dinero.

An interesting choice came from the Richmond road warrior who voted for Pig Man's Barbecue. If you're scratching your head, don't worry. The Pig Man calls the Outer Banks home, and while his barbecue (and tuna-cue, and catfish-cue) can be enjoyed by those on a budget, that doesn't count gas money to get to North Carolina and back.

Best special-occasion dining

Can you beat the linen-tabled luxury of Lemaire for that special moment — popping the question, celebrating an anniversary, commending a graduate? No way, says Richmond.

The restaurant, located in the equally elegant Jefferson Hotel, wins handily for the best place to celebrate that special someone or something.

If you haven't yet dined at Lemaire, general manager John Brown suggests the chef's tasting menu as an excellent introduction. The five-course prix fixe menu is $55, $80 with a wine selection with each course. An added treat is the nightly complimentary chef amousé, or "tease of the tastebuds," a tempting sample of the chef's choosing that night, says Brown.

Ruth's Chris Steak House near the intersection of Huguenot and Robious roads and The Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel are also favorite destinations for special occasions. The lure of watching lobsters in the lobby aquarium before they become the nightly special proved irresistable for at least one voter, who cast a ballot for Red Lobster.

Best margarita

According to you, there is nothing better than sitting on that cozy little patio at Nacho Mama's on a warm breezy night and gulping down the best margarita in the city.

"I think what makes ours different from everyone else's is that we flavor them with liqueurs, not syrups," says restaurant Manager Mike Webb.

Nacho Mama's boasts more than 20 different margarita flavors, all made fresh to order with plenty of variety in each one. Not to mention "Mama's Ultimate Margarita," that Webb claims is simply "a good strong one."

For those who don't like a traditional margarita, the "Hawaiian," is fruity and tropical and a good alternative. Havana '59 came in at second place, and Bandito's a close third.

Best restaurant wine list

"Everybody doesn't have to drink oaky chardonnay," says Bob Talcott, developer of the wine list at Buckhead's Chop House. An overwhelming winner in this category, Buckhead's wine list boasts a staggering selection of 800 wines at any given time. Whether a picky connoisseur or vintage neophyte, with that many wines to choose from, at Buckhead's you're sure to find a match for your palette. This summer's popular picks from the list include: Alsace whites, great dry rosés from the Navarra region of Spain and wines from the Languedoc region in southwest France.

Best gourmet takeout

Tired of heating up the kitchen every night as you attempt to bake a home-cooked meal? Readers believe that Belle Kuisine provides the perfect alternative to cooking in a pressure cooker. Randall Kutler, kitchen manager at the Stony Point store, says customers often take home - or eat in the store - eggplant Parmesan and chicken stuffed with roasted corn, peppers and Monterey jack cheese. Quiches, vegetarian quesadillas, pasta, fruit and vegetable salads are available to satisfy vegetarians. And all eaters like to devour the desserts - especially the chocolate chip- and walnut-covered Brownie Mania Pie.

You ranked Ukrop's, with its hand-tossed pizzas and six different kinds of paninis, your second choice.

Best place to eat lunch on an expense account

Classy employees take their clients to that Shockoe Bottom anchor, the Tobacco Company. The three-story corner warehouse was converted into a restaurant ages ago and features fine Virginia food and wine. The Jefferson Hotel's Lemaire took second place, with Southern specialties including Virginia ham and fresh crabs. One class-impaired corporate lightweight reports that when the bills go to Boss Man, he makes business deals over the eye-candy at Hooter's.

Best bakery

Fifteen years ago, Jean-Jacques flung open its doors to Richmond, beckoning a generation of Richmonders raised on biscuits and Wonder Bread to sample the best of European bakeries — luscious fruit tarts, airy breads and spectacular cakes for every occasion. In a not-so stunning turn, Richmond did not immediately embrace this baking revolution. "Richmond very slow," chuckles owner Clement Denicourt, his French heritage as evident in his speech as in his baguettes. But by word of mouth and bite of morsel, Richmonders did come around to Jean-Jacques' old-world baked goods. Today, Jean-Jacques is Richmond's bakery of choice for wedding cakes, special occasion desserts, even our daily bread. Denicourt says he keeps customers coming back for more by keeping up with the latest in French baking trends which, of course, means annual sojourns to Paris and the like. To that we sigh and say, "c'est la vie."

Montana Gold and Ukrop's also were high on your list of favorite bakeries.

Best bread

While the neon "free slices" sign in the window of Richmond's Montana Gold Bread Co. is enough to entice customers to enter the store, Montana Gold's samples are good enough to convince customers to leave with a loaf - and to select the store as the top-ranking bread-maker in the city. Tomato Basil, Blueberry Pineapple and Cheddar Garlic are popular among the clientele, says employee Dan MeGar, but the gooey insides of Cinnamon Swirl make it the obvious No. 1 choice. Pumpkin bread, pound cake and muffins are also available to satisfy those gourmands who have an especially sweet tooth. And if you find something missing from the array of choices, the store is willing to look at customers' own recipes.

Don't let the name fool you. Montana Gold, owned by Rich and Sher Lahvic, is only in Richmond. "It's just a mama-papa organization," MeGar says. Despite the influx of new bread stores in the area like Baker's Crust and Great Harvest Bread Co., MeGar says Montana Gold has not suffered. "Our customers have gone in there and have come back."

Readers also like to feast on the breads at Ukrop's. And some local Francophiles just can't resist the baguettes, batards and miches at Jean-Jacques, the third-place winner.

Best place to get a healthful meal

Maybe it's those little round stickers with the apples on them.

Or is it the fact that you can get all sorts of yummy, nutritiously cooked sides to go with your meals?

Or maybe it's that everyone you see in khaki pants and a green hat and apron looks so darn cheerful and healthy.

Whatever the reason, Ukrop's is the winner, just nosing out Ellwood Thompson's, in a very close battle.

It's no secret why. The food may not be organic, but the grocery chain makes up for that in spades. Ukrop's offers tons of fresh, local produce, meat and seafood, and healthy recipe suggestions to prepare all that good stuff you buy. They even offer flu shots and host blood drives when the need arises. Now that's healthful.

Best bar for your dollar

Richmond has recently seen the opening of some trendy new watering holes — witness Siné and the Main Street Brewing Co. — but Buddy's in the Fan gets the vote for best bar for your dollar. Maybe it's because your dollar will go a long way here with $1.75 drafts and daily 5-9 p.m. happy hour specials, or maybe it's just because Buddy's is the quintessential Fan bar. This no-frills establishment consistently packs them in, and if the weather is good and Buddy's patio is open, fuggedaboutit — be prepared to wait. As close to Cheers as Richmond will ever get, this is the kind of place where you're likely to run into someone you know.

The small and unpretentious Bamboo Cafe on Main Street comes in close second, with Sidewalk Cafe, located just a few blocks away, coming in third.

Best bartender

Now that he has an award to live up to, Josh Carlton doesn't want people to get the wrong idea. A bartender for six years, and currently working the crowds at Border Chophouse and Bar, Carlton says he wows his customers with a good attitude, not fancy moves. "I don't get all Tom Cruise," he says. "I just try to be friendly to people and make a good atmosphere." He might not juggle bottles of tequila, but being the best bartender means more than flashy


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