Chefs worth their Celtic sea salt know they have to stay fresh to keep up. With new restaurants opening weekly, stalwarts need to attract the voracious subset of customers always on the lookout for something new or different. And with a Washington Post restaurant critic recently dubbing Richmond's dining scene "engaging enough to merit a drive from Washington," the stakes have never been higher. Here are two examples in Shockoe Bottom.
Born as Sette, a tucked-away pizza place, the newly named 23rd and Main Taproom proudly takes its place along the corridor with an attractive dining room that opens onto the main drag. The space in the back is still there and being renovated, but the whitewashed walls and big front window make a far more appealing place to eat, as does the patio with pergola and small garden.
The menu, like the décor, shows some opening up. Entrees, sandwiches and burgers have been added along with a more appetizers and, appropriately given the new focus, beer snacks. Like so many other places, 23rd and Main has jumped onto the beer bandwagon, offering 11 taps ($5-$7 pint, $10-$12 growler), including locals Hardywood and Strangeways and as many bottled beers. There are four layered pints ($5-$6.50), from a classic black and tan to a left-handed bitch of a Flying Dog Raging Bitch layered with Left Hand Milk Stout. The libation menu also includes eight bourbons and ryes ($6.50-$15) and eight sipping tequilas ($7-$10) with a decent variety of silvers, reposados and añejos. Wine lovers will find a variety of Old and New-World choices ($5-$13 glass, $17-$40 bottle), while cocktails ($7-$12) boast locally influenced names such as pipeline and north bank negroni. So it has your drinking covered.
French shallot herb dip with house-made spiced cottage chips ($7) is rich and familiar-tasting, while pimento cheese with house-made pork rinds ($8) packs a lot of spice, pleasant but surprising. A plate of Italian meats ($8) is a good deal, delivering Genoa salami, Applegate Farms natural pepperoni, capicola, prosciutto, Parmesan, oiled bread and pickled vegetables. A burrata plate with arugula pesto and grilled challah ($9) brings a huge ball of creamy mozzarella, but it sits atop two wafer-thin slices of tomato, a crime in the height of tomato season, and making the ratio of cheese to tomato all wrong.
Pleased to see that they've kept the Sette tradition of half- and whole-sized salads ($6.50/$9.50), we try the chopped salad of romaine, tomato, buttermilk blue cheese and bacon. One taste and it's obvious the bacon has been smoked in-house. When I ask our server, she brightens up, saying: "Yep, they do a sugar rub and smoke it. I used to be a vegetarian, but I've started eating meat and after having that bacon, I can't go back." Amen. Packed onto a ciabatta loaf, the stellar leg of lamb French dip ($11) has an entree-sized portion of meat to dip in the red wine demiglace. Arugula pizza ($10) sounds appealing with white sauce, goat cheese, mozzarella, roasted red pepper and a mound of fresh arugula, but is strangely bland.
Six blocks away sits Lulu's, a place working on its latest incarnation. After a go at upscale Mexican, it's settled on comfort food with a British twist. It's still doing weekend-only service, but with brunch both days, it probably will always have devotees. Lobster biscuit ($14) piles scrambled egg, lobster, mushrooms, tomatoes and hollandaise atop a house-made biscuit for a decadent way to start a weekend morning. Chicken chilaquilles ($12) are less successful because the fried tortilla chips under the salsa verde chicken, scrambled eggs and sour cream quickly become a soggy mess.
While Lulu's transitions to the new concept with a new chef, the dinner menu is limited. Fried green tomatoes ($9) with buffalo mozzarella and arugula perk up with the sriracha squiggled on the plate. Lulu's mac and cheese ($15) is huge and downright obscene with lobster, bacon and white cheddar sauce. Hamburger with grilled pineapple, bacon and cheese ($10) is a comfort food staple. Most Friday and Saturday nights there's live music at 8:30. We catch Eli Cook along with a packed and enthusiastic room of music lovers, many eating dinner. The schedule is posted on the restaurant's Facebook page.
Neither place is reinventing the wheel. What they're doing is offering a slightly new experience at a familiar location. Fill a growler and enjoy some beer snacks on the patio at 23rd and Main. Check out Bobby Messano or Kurt Crandall at Lulu's over comfort food. Not every night out has to be worthy of a drive from Washington. S
23rd and Main Taproom at Sette
7 N. 23rd St.
Sunday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-Midnight
Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
21 N. 17th St.
Friday-Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sunday 9 a.m.-3 p.m.