Richmonders don't let oppressive heat keep them from enjoying a meal outdoors. The criteria for a winning outdoor spot are twofold: Foremost, the food must be good. A fabulous view can't make bad food taste better (unless you're talking about a place like Bora Bora, and then … maybe). Secondly, the restaurant needs a dedicated space. Throwing a few tables on the sidewalk doesn't qualify, because it's nearly impossible to enjoy a meal when you're essentially a human roadblock in pedestrian traffic.
We can't talk about outdoor eating without addressing the Boathouse. Two locations feature different, yet equally beautiful views. Sunday Park, overlooking Swift Creek Reservoir, offers a vacation-at-the-lake feel. The other is east of downtown, at Rocketts Landing, providing a view of the James River and a sleeker, city vibe. Despite the different atmospheres, the two Boathouses share a menu, though the one at Sunday Park executes it more precisely and consistently. Try any item off its raw bar, especially the citrusy scallop seviche, and anything involving fresh Chesapeake crab.
You might be tempted to try Conch Republic if you can't get into the downtown Boathouse, and although it features the same gorgeous view, the food mostly is uninspired bar fare. I'd save this place for a pre-dinner drink on the deck.
One way to escape the city without leaving downtown is at Beauregard's Thai Room. Its dropped garden patio is a cool, calm oasis hidden right off busy Cary Street. The food is a touch Americanized but still tasty, and it's trying new things on the menu and cocktail list.
Pearl Raw Bar took over the Fan spot that was deLux, featuring a back room with garage doors. It's the perfect compromise between indoor and outdoor dining, and has a solid menu with some hits and a few misses. The seared tuna appetizer is light, flavorful and fresh, but the crab cakes taste heavy on filler and low on crab, particularly when compared with those at the Boathouses. Nearby, I'm keeping an eager eye on Postbellum, taking over the old Mulligan's sports bar in the Fan. It's knee-deep in renovations, but word is that it's making the most of that fantastic rooftop deck.
For something a little more upscale, diners' best bets are Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts or the Jefferson Hotel's Lemaire. Amuse features artistic plating and a view of the sculpture garden, while Lemaire's more classic menu focuses on Virginia ingredients with Southern style. Lemaire's newly opened patio has an excellent deal at happy hour, where the three-for-$20 appetizer special is ideal for fancy dining without the cost. With only eight tables, the small space is in high demand in good weather and often packed. At C Street in Carytown, the porch is the spot to mix Billy Bread french toast and people watching on a Sunday morning. Plus, the mornings tend to be a little cooler, especially with a nice, cold mimosa.
Legend Brewing Co. has the best deck in town. But even grading on a pub food curve, Legend's fare can be mediocre. The deck would be worth it for a few beers, if you could get a few beers. Every time I've been there the service has been unreasonably slow. Until those issues are addressed, Legend's deck is one I can't recommend.
I have to say the same about the deck at Bottom's Up. I like its pizza, and you can't get anything like it anywhere else in Richmond. But I'd suggest enjoying it inside, unless you want to stop your conversation for a good five minutes every time a train comes screeching overhead.
In the end, Richmonders are kind of like the postman: neither heat nor pollen nor mosquitoes nor humidity can stop them from dining outdoors. At one of these patios or decks, a good meal and an icy beverage manage to cut through the air, no matter how steamy. S
A locally created Web app, FindAPatio.com, is up and running with more than 200 local patios listed and mapped. Chad Williams, who owns a Richmond Web design and development company, began building a database of decks and outdoor spaces three years ago, and offers the finder service free.
Users can share their location to find nearby patio options, or disable the location service if they choose privacy and a general listing instead. The app works on any device and requires no download from an app store, says Williams, who worked with Matthew Rosenberg of The Richmond Times-Dispatch on the project.
As for current favorites, "It's hard to deny the Conch or Boathouse setting or Legend," Williams says. "Anything on the river is nice," but any place with big, open windows, garage-style doors, or other outdoor-ish features makes the cut for the growing list.
What's next? A bigger map, he says: "The goal is to expand everywhere so when you are on the road traveling or on vacation somewhere else it's also useful."
A few other patios and decks worth noting are: Azzurro at 6221 River Road, Patrick Henry Pub and Grille at 2300 E. Broad St., Don't Look Back at 2929 W. Cary St., Burger Bach at 10 S. Thompson St., Lamplighter Roasting Co. at 116 S. Addison St., Portico at 12506 River Road and Hickory Notch Grill at 2031 Broad Street Road in Goochland. Let us know your favorites by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing
4708 E. Old Main St.
The Boathouse at Sunday Park
4602 Millridge Parkway
3325 W. Cary St.
11 Orleans St.
Beauregard's Thai Room
103 E. Cary St.
Pearl Raw Bar
2229 W. Main St.
Amuse at the VMFA
200 N. Boulevard
101 W. Franklin St.
Legend Brewing Co.
321 W. Seventh St.
Bottom's Up Pizza
1700 Dock St.