The Big Easy, decked out in Mardi Gras masks and an alligator head surrounded by chili-pepper Christmas lights, barely inched out Galaxy Diner and Double T's for best restaurant to open in the past year. The N'awlins grill and raw bar in the West End has made a name for itself in a short period of time with its popular entrees of jambalaya and crab cakes. Richmond goes to the Big Easy for the common Cajun and Creole meals, and the uncommon: alligator nachos (how many of us can say we've eaten gator?) and Cajun popcornfried crawfish. Those of you with less adventurous taste buds can rest assured they have a wood grill to prepare chicken and steaks. "There's something for everyone," general manager Steve Greehan says, pointing to the chalkboard menu and explaining that many of the items can be placed in half-orders.
Tying for second place: Galaxy Diner, a space-age rendition of a '50s diner (complete with strong coffee and bar stools), and Double T's, where you get to choose from five tasty, homemade barbecue sauces both new to Carytown.
Best established restaurant
This is one of those rare times where the critics and the readers seem to agree. The Italian eatery Mamma 'Zu not only takes home this award again this year, but received mention after mention in our July 4 critics' choice issue. The restaurant's cozy "hole-in-the-wall" atmosphere and hard-to-find address in the middle of Oregon Hill are certainly not customer deterrents. Jockeying for standing room during peak hours on a Saturday night resembles being on the Stock Exchange floor at the opening bell.
Millie's Diner in Church Hill came in a close second.
Best romantic restaurant
It's not violins or darkened corner booths that turn most Style voters on. They prefer pretty eateries and delicious food shared with someone worth romancing. Cabo's is the winner here, and though there's never been a dramatic proposal (at least a marriage proposal), staff members say lots of anniversaries and special occasions are celebrated in the airy, mural-painted setting. The place's live jazz adds a seductive energy that begs for nightcaps and whatever might follow. Downtown at Lemaire, voters go for the attentive service and sensuous Southern cuisine, knowing full well that a loved one's heart is best captured by way of corn and crab chowder ladled lavishly into a bowl.
Best smoke-free restaurant
The Frog and the Redneck chef and co-owner Jimmy Sneed knows how to make his feelings about smoke in restaurants clear: "Treat smoking like masturbation, do it all you want but don't make me watch, and for God sakes don't get it on me."
Let's move on, shall we, Jimmy? When he opened in Shockoe Slip seven years ago, his was one of the few smoke-free restaurants in Richmond. But previous experience with a smoke-free restaurant in Urbanna made him confident a no-smoking policy would work, even in Tobacco Town.
"Being nonsmoking is very, very good for business," he says. "Most smokers don't like eating around smoke, and they are not going to not go to a good restaurant just because they can't have a smoke. On the other hand, nonsmokers will stay away in droves from a smoky restaurant."
Sneed says his no-smoking policy is not just good for business, it's good for his staff: "Since recognizing that second-hand smoke truly sickens people, I came to understand that I could never force an employee to risk his health to keep his job."
While a number of Richmond restaurants are following the smoke-free trend, Baker's Crust and Musselducks got the most of the rest of the votes from those who prefer not to have a side of second-hand smoke with their meals.
Best outdoor dining
Serving up tasty dishes guaranteed to singe the taste buds, Nacho Mama's at 3344 W. Cary could have opted for cool colors in its décor. But it's as if the brightest shades on the Sherwin and Williams paint chart exploded in all the restaurant's dining rooms. If vibrant reds and yellows mark the interior palette, the front deck is equally colorful. It's hard to miss as one motors or meanders through Carytown. Once seated (there's sometimes a short wait for an outside table), stick-to-your-ribs Mexican fare and an attractive clientele make this a see-and-be-seen place. But there's no attitude. The front deck, raised slightly above the Cary Street sidewalk is a relaxing spot. But then who isn't relaxed after a few frosty Margaritas?
"I'm a Texan and I think it's great," says Tim Seymore of Double T's Real Smoked Barbeque, as if hailing from the Lone Star state made the Fan resident and travel agent a bona-fide critic. "Those five sauces they serve are all great." On the Fourth of July, as the restaurant spread its service out onto the side parking lot where tables had been set up and a bluegrass band struck up some tunes, Seymore and two friends settled in for lunch. A few days later, he took his parents there - obviously the ultimate endorsement. Style readers agree. The menu lists broad offerings of chicken, beef and pork barbecue combinations. There's also Brunswick stew and chili and home cookin' favorites such as stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas. And just try to resist that hunk of cornbread - hot, homemade and filled with whole kernels of corn.
A waitress touts the French fries as "the best in town." With the Skull & Bones restaurant now defunct, we'd have to agree. Patrons can choose the sprawling dining room or sit under an umbrella on the outdoor front terrace overlooking a lively stretch of Carytown sidewalk. And don't be surprised if a big man with a booming voice comes up and asks you which sauce you liked the best. That's Double T himself. Shucks.
You asked us last year to include this category in this year's Best Of issue. We did, though we were sure that the slowly rotating pizza at the 7-Eleven was a shoo-in. But you voted overwhelmingly for Bottom's Up, which towered over the competition. The Shockoe Bottom restaurant won with one of the highest margins we saw this year. But be warned you can't get this pizza for a dollar a slice or with a Big Gulp. You'll just have to settle for deep crusts and loads of hearty toppings.
The New York-style pizza at Mary Angela's in Carytown came in second.
Always a favorite in our annual poll, Legend Brewing Company once again is your favorite microbrew. Maybe it's the great view of the skyline from the microbrewery's expansive deck that makes you so fond of Legend's lager, pilsner, brown ale, porter and golden I.P.A. Or maybe it's that all these brews are available everywhere from CVS to Hannaford to most of your favorite watering holes. Regardless, the microbrewer is well on its way to becoming a Richmond legend.
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