Classic luxury never goes out of style, especially in this country. Despite a self-described socialist mounting a surprisingly receptive run for the Democratic presidential nomination, most Americans will continue to appreciate extravagance, even if wages are declining and our dalliance with opulence is increasingly fleeting.
Shockoe Whiskey & Wine seems to know this. The name itself evokes the restaurant’s dark interior complete with a cigar lounge where you can savor surf and turf, sip 25-year-old scotch and conduct high-end business deals.
An integral part of such an experience is impeccable service, which is, regrettably, where the cracks start to show for Shockoe Whiskey & Wine. When busy, the unfailingly friendly staff seems to struggle to manage the chaos of a full restaurant with a line of impatient guests waiting to be seated.
Confusion about who attends to which section amplifies the feeling that everything is slightly out of control. And harried wait staff can never offer the kind of attentive service most diners expect. Unfortunately, even when business is slower, some of the staff seems too comfortable with a lack of menu knowledge, especially the restaurant’s namesake drinks. One waiter struggles to describe the wines and then promptly forgets the one I order.
For a restaurant with two kinds of alcohol in its name, the choices are surprisingly limited. There are plenty of types of whiskey on the menu, but the list by no means is extensive or exploratory. The wine list is similarly short, with half a dozen whites and reds by the glass, and lacking rosés, sparklers or more obscure choices that might expose a curious diner to previously undiscovered wine regions around the world. On the other hand, a few novel cocktails, like a whiskey negroni and a whiskey mojito, might rattle purists but are worth trying if you aren’t stuck on traditional drink recipes.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, Shockoe Whiskey & Wine has quite a bit going for it. For one: location. Situated in the oldest commercial building in Richmond, the previous tenant, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine, had a great run and continues to do so in newly renovated digs on East Grace Street. Shockoe Bottom remains the heart of Richmond’s nightlife scene and the restaurant is a stone’s throw from the 17th Street Farmers’ Market and its endless festivals, offering a steady flow of traffic.
The food, too, could be a draw, especially if you’re looking for the kind of old-school luxury items to which adding crab to the main dish is the default culinary upgrade. Shockoe Whiskey & Wine is a meat- and seafood-centered place, with traditional choices, labeled as premium entrees, such as oven-roasted chicken ($20), New Zealand lamb chops ($24 half rack, $30 full rack), rib-eye steak ($28) or crab-stuffed shrimp ($30). You can combine mains, with such options as the ultimate surf and turf ($40), which pairs steak with an Alaskan crab cake and sautéed shrimp.
A few items seem to stand out, if not as culinary innovations, at least as an opportunity for the kitchen to flex and demonstrate some creativity. Wings glazed with a sweet whiskey sauce ($12) meld the restaurant’s whiskey theme with a popular appetizer. The result is beautifully plated, above-average bar food. While tasty, it ultimately underwhelms, especially given the price.
Brunch, served late — until 6 p.m. Sunday — also showcases a little pizzazz, such as fried chicken encrusted in Captain Crunch cereal served over a Belgian waffle ($16). The chicken is moist, tender, and the crust is not as sweet as you might imagine. It strikes a beautiful balance of flavor and texture. Accompanied by fried eggs and potatoes, it’s a hearty dish. Upgrading to real maple syrup and a more interesting waffle would make this one of the better brunch dishes in Richmond. The Alaskan omelet ($16) features asparagus, crab and cheddar in a perfect brunch mix of sweet and savory goodness.
Nothing I order is ever poorly prepared, which is remarkable, but neither is it especially inspired. And this may work well for some diners who aren’t interested in trend-setting restaurants and their slavish followers. Shockoe Whiskey & Wine provides a comforting and familiar dining option. Only time will tell if that’s enough to keep it in business in the increasingly competitive Richmond dining scene. S
Shockoe Whiskey & Wine
1721 E. Franklin St.
Wednesdays-Fridays 5 p.m.-midnight; Saturdays 3 p.m.-midnight; Sundays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.