While Richmond’s dining scene strives to become a nationally recognized food powerhouse like Nashville or Charleston, South Carolina, it continues to earn increased recognition beyond the area and consistent nods from the James Beard Foundation. Some of the players making it happen are on expansion sprees of their own.
James Beard Award finalist Peter Chang put his stamp on Scott’s Addition with an upscale version of re-imagined Sichuan cuisine and then opened a simpler, casual spot, Dumplings and Noodles, a few doors down from his original restaurant in the Short Pump Village Shopping Center.
The West End has been enticing restaurateurs. Property prices and rents are increasing in the Fan, Church Hill, Carytown and downtown. And besides offering a more amenable county government to work with, the West End is full of people clamoring for independent restaurants.
Michelle Williams of Richmond Restaurant Group is opening two spots there next year: the Daily Kitchen & Bar West End and West Coast Provisions. “We’ve been looking for 10 years out there,” she says. “We’ve passed up a lot of different opportunities that just didn’t quite feel right.”
Eat Restaurant Partners’ Chris Tsui and director of operations Ren Mefford are also expanding to the GreenGate development in Short Pump, where they’ll put their stamp on a traditional steakhouse that also throws sushi into the mix. It will be their third restaurant in 14 months. Boulevard Burger & Brew opened with a bang in January, and the recent Wong Gonzalez continues to gain momentum.
“It’s gone remarkably well,” Mefford says of the company’s expansion. “If I sound surprised, that’s because there’s always lots of opportunities for things not to.”
As far as dining goes, South Side is a relatively underdeveloped community. Although the White Horse Tavern came and went quickly near Semmes and Forest Hill avenues, Kendra Feather of Ipanema Cafe, the Roosevelt and Garnett’s Cafe plans to open what she describes as a modern fern bar, Laura Lee’s, in that space in a few weeks. Next door, the WPA South Side is serving the same creative baked goods that gained such a strong following in Church Hill.
Travis and Ryan Croxton are always looking beyond Richmond, although Rapp Session, their tiny oyster bar next to Rappahannock, opened on East Grace Street this year. It will be the little brother to a much larger version planned for the old Cigar Factory in Charleston. And when their oyster company isn’t serving as host to television programs from as far away as England, Ireland and the Middle East, they plan to open yet another spot in an old oyster shed in the Wharf development in Washington, near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
A $74 million project, Stone Brewing Co. looms large, with the Stone Company Store opening in February and its first Richmond-brewed kegs tapped in July. The level of public incentives has caused consternation in some corners, but officials promise jobs, economic growth and a boon for East End development. Speaking of the East End, long a food desert, plans finally are underway for a grocery store in a key area of Church Hill, Jim’s Local Market.
Other areas of the city continue to experience the relative insanity that is the Richmond-area grocery scene. Two highly anticipated Wegmans opened. Whole Foods in Short Pump stepped up its game with a large new pub. And the next Whole Foods to be built on the footprint of the old flagship Pleasants Hardware on West Broad Street is on track for 2017. Discount chain Aldi sprang up all over town and rival Lidl is said to be coming. Then there was Southern Season, which opened to much fanfare in 2014 and then closed in April of this year.
But it was Publix that provided the shocking plot twist. Although a new-construction store was announced at the beginning of the year, what first looked like a tentative step into the area market turned out to be an all-out assault, with the Florida-based, employee-owned company buying the 10 struggling Martin’s not already scheduled for closure. The new Publix stores will roll at the beginning of 2017.
The grass-roots engine is the local craft beer scene, which continues to celebrate new, smaller breweries. Three years ago Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Patrick Murtaugh and Eric McKay helped push for legislation to allow breweries to sell their own beer on the premises. They can serve it, too — without the food-alcohol ratio constraints required of restaurants. Today, the Richmond area boasts 20 breweries, with more in the works.
A young, critically acclaimed standout is the Veil Brewing Co., which opened this year in Scott’s Addition. It’s illustrated a new kind of tourism sector, as well, drawing visitors from up and down the East Coast. They line up Tuesdays to get a taste of brewmaster Matt Tarpey’s sought-after concoctions released weekly.
The combination of creativity, job creation and the ability to draw attention to local restaurant talent makes for power in Richmond’s dining scene. Some spend dollars and others use energy — most deploy both — but the overriding quality of those in power is persistence. The same goes for the scores of smaller, successful owners in a demanding industry who are slowly but surely building their empires across the city.
Their beer can be found in restaurants across the city and far beyond, a brand getting only stronger with time. It’s a reliable crowd favorite and a leader in Richmond’s growing economic sector. Murtaugh and McKay lead by example, actively helping the craft beer scene with advice and cultivating relationships with lawmakers. In November they broke ground on the first phase of a $28 million expansion project on 24 acres in Goochland County, with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other state officials by their side. The deal was a loss for outgoing Mayor Dwight Jones, whose team focused on luring the out-of-town Stone Brewing Co. with big money. Then again, Hardywood was hard-pressed to find the kind of bucolic farmland setting it wanted within city limits. Fortunately, its ever-popular brewery near The Diamond will stay put. In addition to the Goochland project, the two will open a small production center and taphouse in Charlottesville.
From his first restaurant, Osaka Sushi & Steak, Tsui developed a solid set of businesses that include the Blue Goat, Wild Ginger, Foo Dog and Fat Dragon. But then he and operations director Ren Mefford became captivated by Richmond’s first burger stand, the former Kelly’s Jet System Hamburgers, which stood empty on the Boulevard. The resulting restaurant serving nongenetically modified Black Angus beef and adult milkshakes was overrun the minute the doors opened. Down on East Grace Street, Wong Gonzalez, an Asian-Mexican mash-up, has had a more graceful ramp-up. And with a new spot at the GreenGate development in his sights, Tsui’s brand continues to extend across the city in every direction.
When he arrived, most Richmonders had never heard of Peter Chang. His cult following was intense but had little to do with most West Enders’ dining choices. Once they ate his food they knew — the hot and numbing ma la of Sichuan overlaid with Chang’s inventive Chinese cuisine. The big national publications came and so did television. Along with a nod from the James Beard Awards, the chef began expanding outside of town before he found a home in the Hofheimer Building in midtown this year. Chang is now focusing on a different kind of concept epitomized by the newly opened Noodles and Dumplings — a type of restaurant that soon may expand into a franchise operation.
In 1995, Williams, along with partners Jared Golden and Ted Wallof, opened the Hard Shell in a block that bridges Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. Today, Williams and her company have six restaurants with two more planned for the GreenGate Development in the West End. She’s a fearless owner: If a restaurant isn’t working, Williams closes it, and she’s not afraid to re-brand either. When Carytown restaurant Water Coastal Grill ran into some legal issues over its name, the restaurateur decided it was time to scrap the concept, redo the interior and reopen as East Coast Provisions. The rest has been smooth sailing.
Oysters run in the family. Travis and his cousin Ryan’s grandfather made his living harvesting them from the Rappahannock River, and in 2001, the young men decided to revive the business. Acclaimed chefs from across the country soon clamored for their oysters. Rappahannock Oyster Co. added a tasting room, Merroir, at its marina, and before they knew it, the Croxtons were in the restaurant business — with establishments from Maryland to North Carolina. A second Washington spot is next, and then it’s on to Charleston.
Start with sheer volume: Last year FeedMore distributed approximately 25 million pounds of food throughout its service area, which spans nearly a third of Virginia, from the Northern Neck to Louisa County and south to the North Carolina border. The goal is to focus on responding to three key constituencies: feeding children, families and seniors by serving 51,000 meals every day, frequently to people yet to recover from the 2008 recession. And as part of FeedMore’s mission to nourish communities and empower lives, FeedMore increased the amount of produce in meals to 40 percent to help address diet-related health issues. A former executive with Capital One Financial Corp., Pick is responsible for a huge community asset, strengthening the organization and boosting its strategic savvy.
Feather has a knack for finding neighborhoods that need restaurants. Her first venture, Ipanema Cafe — when she was in her 20s — gave students and professors at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University a much-needed vegetarian option. Although the Fan is well stocked with restaurants, a lunch counter with sandwiches was a little harder to find before Garnett’s Cafe came along. With the Roosevelt, she planted a flag in a neighborhood struggling for revival, Church Hill north of East Broad Street, and with its chef and co-owner, Lee Gregory, brought award-winning cuisine worth the drive for the rest of the city. South Side is now scheduled to welcome her latest venture, Laura Lee’s, in another neighborhood anxious for dining options.
The Giavoses can be excused from not opening a restaurant this year. With seven going at full tilt, including Stella’s and the Continental, plus two small markets and an ice-cream shop, there’s plenty to do. Both husband and wife grew up in the restaurant business — Katrina’s parents owned the Village Restaurant and Johnny’s owned the Athens Tavern — and after they married, Sidewalk Cafe was their first venture together. Partnerships with Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen owner Kevin Roberts and Manny Mendez of Kuba Kuba, plus a slew of restaurant real estate holdings, have become incubators for restaurant owners now and into the future.
Things looked mighty uncertain when a stray spark from an apartment upstairs caused brother and sister Evrim and Evin Dogu’s Sub Rosa Bakery to be gutted by fire in 2013. The Dogus rebuilt their Church Hill spot and began making bread and pastries again from Evrim’s hand-milled grain. That bread has received attention from across the country, including raves from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire and Saveur. The bakery also is happy to invite guests and is host to Longoven — which despite its nondomiciled, pop-up status, is one of the 50 finalists for Bon Appetit’s annual list of America’s 10 best new restaurants.
When beer nerds heard that Matt Tarpey would be opening a brewery with partners Dustin Durrance and Dave Michelow in Richmond, they hoped for something special to emerge from the Veil Brewing Co.’s doors. Tarpey, a pedigreed brewer from Vermont’s Hill Farmstead Brewery and Alchemist, had the chops to pull off the stellar India pale ales and the wild fermentation of the best sour beers. The Veil has become a craft beer enthusiast’s tourist stop. And although the owners deliberately scheduled new releases for Tuesdays to give locals the first crack at them, it hasn’t deterred the long lines every week.
Editor's note: Michelle Williams has six restaurants, not five, the number that appears in the print edition. There are two Hard Shell restaurants.