You could say a gastro-pub was just what Richmond needed. While Virginia law requires every place serving alcohol to serve food, it doesn't require it to be good food.
Enter the gastro-pub, a trend that began in the early '90s to better marry customers' drinking and eating aspirations. Drinkers get better-than-average libations and foodies get something far more interesting than bar grub. Those who care about neither get good value.
Toast, the new gastro-pub in the Village Shopping Center, is jumping on this trend. The good-sized dining room seats 130, so it can get pretty loud on a busy Saturday night with three screens tuned to sports. The décor is fairly sleek with front tables, booths and a generous bar. Wooden shutters are strung from the high ceiling to bring it down to a more human scale. The music is appropriate on all three of my visits — contemporary indie and club on a weeknight, alternative on Saturday night and soulful at Sunday brunch.
Drinkers should be delighted. Small clipboards with beer, wine, cocktail, bourbon, whiskey and rye listings hang on a hook at every booth. Beer lovers can choose from 15 drafts, 15 craft canned beers (and a daily happy hour with $2, $3 and $4 cans) and 11 bottled beers. Toast has wine on tap: two white and two red. The concept is as simple as barrels of wine tapped right at the bar. It's a way to enjoy wine and be green with less packaging and less waste. But it also makes for better tasting wine that's fresh — and it's a bargain. Glasses are $6 and a carafe is $22. In addition, the wine list has both Old- and New-World wines at $22 to $68 a bottle.
With the pub part of the equation on point, it's essential that the gastro portion deliver good-sized portions and variety at reasonable prices. Shrimp and crab nachos ($12) are on the high end of the menu's pricing, but are a nice deviation from the standard. Tortilla chips are melted with jack cheese and covered in crab, shrimp, cabbage, avocado and pico de gallo. Baked tomato soup (cup $4, bowl $6) is almost thick enough to eat with a fork and feels indulgent with melted cheddar and croutons.
There's no test for pub food like fish and chips, and Toast's beer-battered version ($10) is made with the fish of the day, swai, a mild-tasting white-fleshed fish and served with a mound of fresh-cut fries and Creole tartar sauce. The sloppy joe ($10) gets re-imagined with Moroccan lamb and chorizo, Indian spices, grilled fennel and crème fraîche on toasted brioche, making deep flavor and a thoroughly satisfying sandwich. Pepere's pork pie ($12) pays homage to a classic Canadian tortiere. The ground pork, beef and potato pie comes with currant jam, the perfect complement to smear on the clove-scented pie.
Not everyone at a pub wants a heavy meal, and Toast offers six salads — all but one with some sort of protein. The Thai salad ($10) has sliced chicken breast, edamame, shredded carrots, cabbage, peanuts and a wasabi-ginger vinaigrette with rice noodles on top. The chicken has no discernible flavor despite the appealing ingredients around it. But a grilled Caesar salad ($8) shines because of the fresh-tasting and subtle vinaigrette.
Among the usual suspects at brunch are some clever takes. Bacon and cheddar cheese fritters with maple syrup ($6) are nicely fried, but the cheese doesn't quite work. The brunchiladas ($10) would satisfy the hungriest or most hung-over of customers with scrambled eggs and bacon wrapped in three corn tortillas and topped with cheese sauce and guacamole.
The array of desserts changes but the fried doughnuts ($5) are the stars, served in a paper bag. Poured out onto the plate with a cup of orange marscapone to dip them in, they taste as wonderful as they smell. A server says she got off work the night before, went home and changed into comfy clothes only to return and order a plate of doughnuts for herself.
Given the hearty servings and eclectic menu, you may want to bring a few friends and taste around as many plates as you can without getting a fork stuck in your hand. It's comfort food, sure, but of a slightly more adventurous sort. And did I mention the drinking is good? S
7007 Three Chopt Road
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Friday 11 a.m.-Midnight
Sunday 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m.