Spring is in the air and the fragrances you can smell with the car windows down are not all from the roadside flowers.
In addition to weekend barbecues and crab feasts sponsored by local volunteer fire departments, chefs are testing new seasonal menus.
The waters and fields are ripe with delicious products, so get off the interstate, avoid the fast-food joints and track down these locally owned restaurants in Richmond and beyond, where the food is worth the journey.
Virginia:Good Eats Café, Kinsale. $$-$$$
Husband-and-wife master chefs Steve Andersen and Sally Rumsey converted an old gas station into the best restaurant on the Northern Neck. The fresh seafood is hard to pass up, be it oysters from nearby Nomini Creek or fresh catches from local watermen, but the Thursday-night prime rib is justifiably a local favorite. (804) 472-4385. Dinner only, Thursday through Sunday, March to November.
Pomme, Gordonsville. $$$Park in the back and walk past the Rolls-Royce and chef/owner Gerard Gasparini's classic Peugeot "Ugly Duckling" into a dining room that will transport you, in sight and taste, to France. (540) 832-3009. www.restaurantpomme.com. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday brunch. Closed Monday.
Foti's, Culpeper. $$$ If you haven't been in this small Piedmont city for a while, prepare for a pleasant surprise. The downtown has been transformed from a decaying county seat into a lively venue for fine dining and shopping. Owners Frank and Sue Maragos learned a lot in their years at the Inn at Little Washington he in the kitchen, she in the dining room and it's obvious in the fine food they serve in this more casual setting. (540) 829-8400. www.fotisrestaurant.com. Lunch, Tuesday-Friday; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday.
Molasses Grill, Halifax. $$
Sophisticated dining in a historic building in a small Southside town. Try the namesake pork tenderloin in bourbon and molasses, trout from a nearby North Carolina stream and down-home Southern fried chicken, all put together by are you ready for this? a Detroit chef. (434) 476-6265. www.molassesgrill.com. Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday.
Bistro 1888, South Boston. $$
Modern décor, art and flowers fill the sunny dining room where chef-owner Margaret Moorefield prepares uptown food in the heart of this busy little city. Standouts include shrimp and scallop étouffée, Burgundy chicken with shallots, and linguine with bay scallops Proven‡al. (434) 572-1888. www.bistro1888.com. Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday.
West Virginia:Stardust Café, Lewisburg. $$
The food and atmosphere could pass for Californian. So could owner Elizabeth Destiny (she adopted that last name), whose daughters, Soleil and Sparrow, are among the servers. The menu is modern and enticing, from quiche and seafood to steak with a creamy chipotle sauce and baked goods made by Destiny's brother (wasn't that the name of a '60s movie?). There's an extensive selection of wine and microbrews. And you thought the state vegetable was ramp. (OK, it is). (304) 647-3663. www.stardustcafewv.com. Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday.
Maryland:Harris Crab House, Grasonville. $$$
This great family spot is the real deal, on Kent Island across the bay from Annapolis. You can watch watermen unload boats full of crabs and oysters on the dock next door. Upstairs offers a panoramic view of the bustling waterfront. Most of the patrons are hard-core hard-shell crab regulars who devour those "beautiful swimmers" by the dozen or bushel. For lighter appetites, you can't go wrong with a po' boy oyster or crab-cake sandwich. (410) 827-9500. www.harriscrabhouse.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
New Jersey:Ritz Seafood, Voorhees. $$$
This remarkable place is the joint effort of Korean owner Gloria Cho and American chef Dan Hover, and it's worth a detour off the Jersey Turnpike. Whether it's branzini, devilfish, flute cuttlefish or sushi or a combination of three for $25 it comes with an Asian accent. And just when you think it can't get any better, out comes the coconut cream pie. Save room. (856) 566-6650. Closed Mondays. Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday.
New York:Al Di La, Brooklyn. $$
The headline on The New York Times review of this restaurant says it all: "Go Ahead, Brooklyn, Be Smug." Manhattan foodies are coming across the bridge for the Northern Italian fare at this perfect, unpretentious neighborhood in trendy Park Slope (5th Avenue and Carroll Street). The name, which means "the other side," translates to heavenly food prepared by chef-owner Anna Klinger. If only Richmond had a restaurant this good and inexpensive. Try the tripe, salt cod, calf's liver or traditional pastas, including ravioli with beets and ricotta. No reservations, so come by 6 o'clock or stand in line. Either way, it's worth the cab fare. (718) 636-8888. www.aldilatrattoria.com.
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