For all the online lists where Richmond has popped up, I've yet to see one that included one of the city's greatest strengths: This is a town where live music and satisfying food can harmoniously share the same four walls.
Richmond isn't a place that demands one or the other.
Some people are quick to dismiss Empire as a dimly lighted, hipster bastion hugging the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. But it's long drawn from nearby businesses — barbershops, retail, the old Richmond Glass Shop — luring blue-collar workers along with the pale, purple-haired VCU crowd seeking sanctuary from daylight.
It's been revived by Thor LeVesque, a restaurant lifer who's worked his way through kitchens at Fleming's, Havana '59 and Buckhead's, among others. He's set out to transform the historic building into a brighter, more professional version of a place that held a soft spot in his heart. It's where he experienced his first show as an impressionable teenager.
Broad and Laurel streets has been home to a music venue for years. Before Empire ruled, it was Casablanca, Metro and Rockitz. Music still matters here, with the real estate over the bar wallpapered with copies of old show flyers touting bands such as Gwar, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers back when they played in the room above. When it isn't performed live, music varies, but not much — '90s one day with Hole and Weezer, a trip down memory lane with Bad Company on another, vintage Springsteen at lunch.
Where there's music, there's bound to be drinking and bar food. Yes, Virginia, we have laws. Six taps ($3-$8), including Angry Orchard Cider along with a basic selection of canned and bottled beer, support a back bar for those needing a shot or drink. But where LeVesque has made real inroads are in his affordable and familiar food options solidly executed.
A sense of humor is difficult to miss with the menu's first offering, a PBR tall boy ($5), whimsically described as "the best appetizer in Richmond." Can I get an amen? Each rotation of the earth brings a new hummus of the day platter ($7.95), roasted garlic when I'm there, a generous mound freckled with feta cheese and surrounded like a sunburst by carrots, celery, pita wedges, cherry tomatoes and olives, easily qualifying as a light meal. The strapping portion of chili deluxe (cup $4.95, bowl $6.95) makes me thankful I've chosen the smaller, but wishful for a salt shaker to brighten the flavor a bit. Just when I'm steeling myself not to count on a bar for a decent salad, the Caesar ($6.95) arrives loaded with anchovies, fresh Parmesan and, guilty pleasure that they are, fried croutons warm from the frying pan.
Diners need to open wide for Empire's winning Monte Cubano ($8.95), with its high-rise stack of smoked turkey, ham, swiss cheese and thickly sliced pickles between egg-battered sourdough bread grilled to golden brown. Burgers ($8.95) come in a handful of flavors — the Empire with barbecue sauce and sautéed onions, Casablanca with avocado and provolone and Rockitz with chipotle mayo, bacon, tumbleweed onions and smoked Gouda — with the latter getting major thumbs-up at our table. Or you can build your own if you think you know more than the kitchen does.
If you'd rather eat your beer, try the Kanye West platter ($9.95) four batons of crunchy, beer-battered cod served with fries and jalapeño coleslaw. Devotees of creamy mac and cheese ($2.95, $1.95 with sandwich) will appreciate the house-made version. But this isn't fine dining, and occasionally details get missed, as on a steak sandwich ($10.95) served on a hoagie roll so far past its prime that not even the slathering of Empire's special sauce can redeem it.
As far as getting vegetarians' butts in seats, there are five options including a sloppy jane ($7.95) and the face plant ($7.95), labeled "so good it'll knock you on your face," with grilled eggplant and pickled beet salad, arugula and feta atop wheat-berry bread.
Servers on all three visits are attentive, willing to check with the kitchen when they're unsure, offering boxes for leftovers. A good attitude is evident all around. On one visit, a customer asks what music is playing and groans upon hearing that it's Foghat. "Man, if you don't like Foghat, you need to get out of this restaurant," the bartender tells him, laughingly, as he refills his Coke.
With four TV screens, two dartboards and huge windows fronting the beautifully renovated Depot building, you aren't going to drive miles to go to Empire. But if it happens to be where you are and you're hungry — or a music lover — the restaurant could almost make you a fool for a city bar. S
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review stated that Thor LeVesque culled his recipe for mac 'n'cheese from his years working at McCormack's pub which was inaccurate, according to LeVesque, who adds that his former restaurant never served the dish while he was working there. Style Weekly regrets the error.Empire Dining and Lounge