Well-Liberated 

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Sometimes it's tough to figure out how to review a place because different qualities spring to mind and bend your opinion in ways that distract from the actual food. Although I try to be conscious of and avoid these mind-warping possibilities — bars that don't care about their food particularly, vegetarian places that don't care about their few meat-based entrees, restaurants with a young crowd, restaurants with an older crowd, restaurants that care mostly about how they look — one category usually works hard to make itself heard over the general din.


That would be value. A less expensive restaurant can't really meet the demands placed upon a pricier one. And it shouldn't have to fulfill the same expectations. When a restaurant does go for the overachiever prize, of course, that's cause for much celebration and many repeat visits. Still, sometimes what you're looking for isn't that special needle-in-the-haystack kind of place, which usually gets quickly overrun by crowds, but just a fast and reliable restaurant with good food for a decent price.


When Acapella closed during the past winter, laments were heard all over Church Hill. Former regular Eric Warner took it upon himself to clean up, reopen and rechristen the spot with a name that's both a nod to an even earlier incarnation, the former inn and restaurant Mr. Patrick Henry's, and the famous revolutionary who kicked up some attention across the street.


In an English basement just below street level, the pub is intimate; but with newly painted white-brick walls hung with old movie posters, it's not the dark hidey-hole it once was. It gets a little more raucous down there, but what are you going to do with a bunch of smokers? Upstairs, things start to get more sophisticated (and smoke-free) in a cool, spacious dining room with lovely wood floors, long windows, and art loaned by the Eric Schindler Gallery. Best of all, the food available upstairs is also available downstairs.


Entrees are a steal at $18.95 — the New York strip is juicy and perfectly cooked, with seared gnocchi that stay creamy inside despite their slightly crispy exterior. The chicken breast in the chicken parmigiana has been beaten within an inch of its life but the excellent marinara lapping over top covers a multitude of sins. Mussels come in four different guises, but the best is the puttanesca sauce version: spicy, full of capers as well as the odd, regrettable California olive.


Meatball sliders are a creative variation on the ubiquitous hamburger sliders appearing on menus everywhere, and with fat meatballs sandwiched between thick slices of bread and dripping with marinara sauce, they're almost a meal in themselves. And, with a special shout-out to the restaurant gods, the calamari is not crispy fried, but sautAced until tender in white wine shot through with garlic, mint, basil and shallots.


Sandwiches average around $8, but are large and come with a generous side. Although the brie and chicken breast sandwich is a little bland, the chicken parmigiana survives the translation to sandwich form admirably, and the shrimp po' boy, despite a stray shell or two, is worth trying again. The burger is too thin and arrives in an odd, squarish shape but you have to love a grilled bun and two very ripe tomato slices on anything.


One drawback that low prices have in the restaurant business is the tendency to force an owner to reimagine the same dish several different ways. At Patrick Henry's, this means the chicken tenders are actually the chicken parmigiana with the chicken separated from the sauce. The meatball sliders are, of course, small versions of the meatball parmigiana sandwich, which is, in turn, offered as linguini with meatballs in the entrAce section. It's not rocket science, but it means that the menu is a little less than it seems at first glance.


Not that I necessarily mind too much. When entrees hang onto the $13 to $18 price point and lunch with leftovers can be had for less than $10, I cut the owner some slack.  Decent, affordable food is hard to come by, and I don't want to scare away anyone who offers it to me. S
 
Patrick Henry's Pub & Grille
2300 E. Broad St.
644-4242
Monday to Friday: 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Saturday: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.) Sunday: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10:00 p.m.)
Smoking in the pub only; upstairs nonsmoking.
Patio bar and dining space opens this fall.
Limited handicapped access.

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