Scared Straight 

Food in Richmond's gay bars needs a serious makeover.

click to enlarge food40_drag_300.jpg

This isn't a bash on the gay community. This is not political in nature. I am not making a statement. Please do not respond to this with suggestions of prejudice, accusations of hate or the like. Each of the four restaurants that self-identifies as an alternative lifestyle establishment enjoys stature within our community. I spent the last few weeks patronizing each business to much disappointment and very few highlights.

Babe's, centrally located in Carytown, shows me that location isn't everything. Heck, it clearly means very little here. My visits to this sticky, dirty and dark bar are among the worst I've had in Richmond. My first visit, I hunt down a server (much to her chagrin) to come to my cigarette-laden table. When I finally receive a menu, my questions are met with answers such as, “No, we get them frozen in a bag,” and “I have no idea what they taste like, people rarely order them.”

The food eventually served to me must be a joke. How do you get french fries wrong? When the tomato was sliced to place atop my sandwich, how was the rotten smell and gushy texture overlooked? If I have to silence my gag reflex with sips of flat diet soda (thank you unconcerned bartender for ignoring my suggestion that it was off) while attempting to eat, the kitchen staff must notice the freezer burn on the fried zucchini ($6.66) and the slick shine on the Philly cheese steak ($7.77) when preparing such inedibles. The only redeeming factor Babe's has in respect to dining is the plastic placard on the table that reads “New Dinner Menu Every Wednesday.” Here's to hoping one Wednesday they'll get it right.

Barcode, downtown, has a bit of a better showing. Though it still seems slatternly, I fare reasonably well with service here. Attentive and courteous even when busy, the three bartenders make sure I have everything I need. I'm relatively satisfied with my baby Barcode burger ($6.50) and fries. A tad on the over-seasoned side, it's cooked very close to my requested medium but sits on a soggy, stale bun. The crunchy steak fries, piled high next to my sandwich, are hot and salty. The quesadilla ($8.25) is dry. House-made potato skins ($7), adequate for late-night snacking, could use salt or a zippy sauce.

Godfrey's, also downtown, serves only Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch and frankly, should discontinue both meals. Working with an unbelievably limited menu and service bordering on pathetic, I'm underwhelmed with my congealed, watery bruschetta and odd chicken zingers (both $6.95). Apparently, I can wait till midnight to try its five late-night offerings of good food (as the menu states) but I pass on that opportunity. Brunch on Sunday is a spectacle, not for the food but for the drag queens fighting over dollar bills on a dirty floor, in between thank-yous and costume changes. I want to try the crab and eggs ($10.50) but I smell it as it's served to the table next to me and immediately change my mind. I settle on the mushroom and cheddar quesadilla. It arrives neglected and cold.

Nations manages to be the only visibly clean restaurant of the four — it was recently remodeled. Service is too attentive. I can't get my server to go away. I'd planned on having a conversation with my dining partners, but am foiled by a hovering waiter and excruciatingly loud karaoke that begins at 7:45 p.m. The food is marginal. The fried chicken soup sounds intriguing but is opaque and thick with unidentifiable pieces of gushy … chicken? An underseasoned, poorly formed burger is bland and the sweet-potato fries next to it are old.

The cheese steak is better, boasting beef sliced in house. Between bites, I wish for something more substantial to hold the tasty sliced meat than a glorified hotdog bun and perhaps some onion. A surprise is the barbecue-topped potato skins. Tangy meat is a curious but delightful addition to crispy skins, giving a usually greasy bar dish a bit of vinegary acid to cut through the fat.

Unless a club atmosphere with dungeonlike lighting is what you seek, I suggest passing over these four establishments for food. No amount of good music or fantastically dressed drag queens can compensate for this level of quality. Richmond's gay community deserves better.  S

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