Friendly Territory 

Food Review: Buddy’s Place tiptoes into the Richmond dining scene without leaving the bar scene behind.

click to enlarge Although Buddy’s Place has a new executive chef, it’s still a neighborhood joint where you can grab a beer.

Ash Daniel

Although Buddy’s Place has a new executive chef, it’s still a neighborhood joint where you can grab a beer.

Mention Buddy’s to anyone in Richmond, and a thought cloud of beer invariably pops up. For more than 30 years, it’s been a reliable local watering hole with roots deep below the sidewalks of the Fan. But in January, owner Marian Dealto kissed Robinson Street goodbye and found a new corner perch in the Devil’s Triangle.

It’s no secret that moving wasn’t a choice. But sometimes even a forced change can mean good things. It gets you thinking outside of the box, redefining. And management seems to be doing just that, not only with the pretty new space, but also with a new executive chef.

“An executive chef?” you ask. “At Buddy’s?” Why not?

Carly Herring has worked in kitchens across town — C’est Le Vin, the Dining Room at the Berkeley Hotel and her own restaurant, the Empress — and has devised a menu where appetizers and sandwiches mingle with bistro and diner fare. The words house-made and fresh appear a few times, and there’s a key to indicate gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options. She seems to be catering to a dining crowd that expects more than what’s on tap.

The bar menu has also expanded into more of a beverage program. There are local and craft brews — Belgians, IPAs and porters — and a wine list. FYI: Tuesday is half-priced-bottle-of-wine night.

Despite these refinements, vestiges of the familiar remain: The pink flamingo flies over the front entrance, the massive buffalo head looks on stoically from its mount on the back wall, and the vibe is still raucous at times. If you stop by just for a drink and dinner, you may contend with spectacular noise. I walked in — and then out — one Friday evening at 7, unable to compete with revelry. Weekday nights before Thursday and lunch are quieter.

This disconnect in the experience (is Buddy’s a neighborhood restaurant or noisy bar?) extends to the food. When dishes emerge from the kitchen, sometimes it seems like they’re arriving from two different places. A plate of sides comes out as three or four mini bowls lined up on a wooden board. Thoughtful and decorative. Other times it’s merely nachos and dip — a plate of yellows. Low on presentation, but hey, it’s bar food.

My first order of business is the stuffed jalapeños ($7.50), which my server notes aren’t poppers but actually halved peppers stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. The menu states exactly that, but there’s been diner confusion. I wish they were poppers. There’s no heat from the jalapeño and the bacon clings in a limp hug.

Better is the portobello pizza ($6.50). Mushroom caps are the crust that’s topped with marinara, cheese and artichokes. I’d like a firmer base, but it’s all perfectly fine. Less so is the shrimp tempura ($12.50), which doesn’t involve thick, deep-fried batter at all. Rather, the crustaceans are bland, barely coated, with pink and white skin fully exposed under a sprinkle of Old Bay.

Restraint works for tater tots, with melted cheddar and chili ($5.50) that could be a little thicker, but get the job done. The artichoke dip is hot and pleasantly peppery, and the sautéed spinach side with red onions and almonds is small, but easily one of the best-tasting menu options.

If you ask your server for help choosing one of the many sandwiches, you may hear that the pimento Philly ($9) is a favorite, but opt instead for the grilled steak sandwich ($10). It has far superior meat — chopped London broil versus graying shaved steak — and the horseradish sauce is delicious, creamy with the right amount of zip.

Entrées range from meat to penne, or both. I try the pork butt ($12), which is a pile of dense, shredded pig next to a pile of tater tots next to a pile of vinegar-based apple slaw that should perk things up, but doesn’t. I can’t get my head around the side of corn bread, an inedible sugary brick. I order it again on another visit with the corn bread appetizer basket ($). This time, the muffins are softer but still too sweet — more like vanilla cupcakes with jalapeños.

The shrimp po’ boy ($9) shoots right down the middle. It involves the tempura-less shrimp from the appetizer encased in a hoagie with lettuce, tomato and a dressing that’s supposed to be blue cheese but seems more like plain mayonnaise. Like much of what I try, the ingredients taste as if they’ve been pulled from a box or bag in the freezer and are missing the homemade taste the new guard seems to be going for.

Will Buddy’s be able to make the transition it seems to crave? Do happy-hour-goers downing pints of Yuengling prefer the stuffed jalapeños to fried poppers? Do the friends at a booth three feet away drinking chardonnay and nibbling on a plate of sides want to hear the bar sing-along to Nickelback? It’s a wide gap to bridge. But then again, Buddy’s has mastered the art of sticking around. S

Buddy’s Place
600 N. Sheppard St.
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m.–2 a.m.;
Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m.-2 a.m.

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