On the second night, our waiter started to communicate with me via hand signals at about 8 o'clock. He had two six-tops, a five, a four and our deuce, the whole back half of the room. He looked a little stretched, but he handled it like he'd been there before. Plus, he never lost sight of my girl and me, his smallest table (read: smallest tip). I really appreciated that.
At 8:30, after a round of entrees had gone out, I saw one of the dishwashers and then one of the cooks come through the swinging doors of the kitchen and survey the room. They both had that tired and proud look that said, "Yeah, check it out. We just tore this place up."
Man, I love restaurants like Stella's. It's one of those places where you recognize the staff has it in their blood. They're professionals, and they provide the experience that foodies crave: a fabulous meal along with the feeling of being in on something special. It's like everyone in the room is in rhythm, grinning their way toward a dinner that they'll be talking about a month or two down the line. For the staff, it's probably just another Saturday night, though I'm sure they get a little charge from pulling it off. For us, it's "remember last Saturday? That was incredible."
I know I'm preaching to the choir. Stella's is one of the most beloved restaurants in Richmond. It has been at its current location for six years (the previous one for 12) and Stella herself still cooks in the back. It's spoken of in a tone of voice reserved for the upper echelon of restaurants that define a city's dining potential. It is thrilling to experience a place like this for the first time. I had that experience last weekend, and I'm a believer.
My introduction to Stella's included both the traditional Greek fare that the kitchen elevates high above the mundane, and some of the flashier cuisine that combines regional ingredients with Mediterranean influences. The Greek Sampler ($12.95) covered the early bases with hummus, tender and savory dolmades, taramasalata and tabouleh. The sautéed chicken livers in raspberry vinaigrette ($7.95) were excellent. The livers were thick, wonderfully musky and they melted away on my tongue. Other highlights included four massive seared veal chops in a rich and aromatic shitake, white wine and garlic sauce ($25.95) and a sesame-crusted Ahi tuna, served rare with a roasted yellow pepper sauce ($23.95) and accompanied by red pepper risotto and plump asparagus. The kitchen is exceedingly kind in accommodating its customers. We were afforded an appetizer portion of souvlaki upon request and urged to select our sauces from any entrée. That sort of flexibility is unusual and suggests a great deal of trust and concern for their clientele.
The wine and beer list features several Greek and other imported products. The staff members are knowledgeable and make on-the-spot recommendations. Desserts include the obligatory baklava as well as tiramisu, rice pudding and galactoburicko, a phyllo-crusted custard with honey and lemon. Any of these with a strong coffee make a fine end to the meal and allow you to linger a little longer in the atmosphere.
I'm not providing any revelations here. Stella's is consistently recognized as one of Richmond's favorite restaurants. I now know why. Let me add my name to the long list of Stella-philes. I look forward to going back, watching the place light up in the evening and partaking of its tradition of excellent food, service and camaraderie. S
Randall Stamper worked in restaurants in Boston, New Orleans and Indiana for seven years and filled every job from dishwasher to general manager. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.
2132 W. Main St.
Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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