Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Short Order

Two-Wheel Meals

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Frank Bucalo hopes his food-delivery business, Quickness RVA, brings Richmond closer to bicycle-oriented cities such as Portland, Ore., Copenhagen, Denmark, and his former turf in Brooklyn, N.Y. - ASH DANIEL
  • Frank Bucalo hopes his food-delivery business, Quickness RVA, brings Richmond closer to bicycle-oriented cities such as Portland, Ore., Copenhagen, Denmark, and his former turf in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ten months into his food-delivery business, Frank Bucalo is losing weight from the 20-plus miles a day he's riding. But the 28-year-old is gaining customers and restaurants that appreciate what the Quickness RVA team can provide: fast, economical food delivery by bike.

"This is one little step to be friendly to the earth," Bucalo says, "and we think great restaurants deserve great delivery options." He and his riders act as a street team for their hand-picked businesses, delivering menus to dorms, getting feedback from customers and ensuring that deliveries happen fast while the food's still warm.

Best time so far: A burrito delivered within eight minutes from phone call to door. A recent feat was a nine-pizza order plus sides, delivered with alacrity on a bike loaded with custom thermal bags sewn by local crafter Bree Langford.

"We have an advantage on bikes," Bucalo says of the team's ability to maneuver through traffic and find shortcuts. He was a restaurant worker, delivery driver and pedicab operator in Brooklyn, N.Y., before moving here. "I saw a need and figured out the best way to fill it," he says of the Quickness RVA strategy. The company's delivering more than 200 orders a week so far.

Its list of restaurants includes Alamo BBQ, Fresca on Addison, Lamplighter Roasting Co., Little Mexico, Strange Matter and Nate's Taco Truck Stop. Customers place their orders with the restaurant by phone or online for delivery within a designated radius. The service is free (Alamo charges $1), but drivers depend on tips, which are usually 15 to 20 percent of the food total but can go higher, which offsets the occasional cheapskate.

Alamo BBQ added a new dish, the Texas Trainwreck, only on its delivery menu as a way to test the service's affect on business. The meat over mac and cheese is a hit, and Bucalo senses a growing opportunity with perks of its own, like staff meals and employee discounts on food. "We don't make the food but we want it to be good," he says. quicknessrva.com.

'Dinner in Jackson Ward: Look for changing entrees from chef Matthew Morand as Ettamae's Cafe introduces dinner hours to its options. Pizzas, slow-roasted meats, a salmon and beef tenderloin surf and turf, specialty drinks, microbrews, wines and desserts are on a new seasonal menu. The two-level row house with a small, street-front balcony is dropping its weekday breakfast service and now closes on Mondays. The cafe serves lunch Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. and dinner 5-10 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. 888-8058. ettamaescafe.com.

Farm stand open: Find seedlings to plant, vegetables to eat, and rain barrels to collect water for home gardens at the Tricycle Gardens farm stand, 2107 Jefferson Ave. in Church Hill, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-6 p.m. Learn about urban gardening, community food activism and other local food topics through their programming and outreach. tricyclegardens.org.

Vegan gathering: Act quickly to reserve space for the Vegetarian Society of Richmond's vegan dinner April 3 at 5:30 p.m. at Fresca on Addison at 22 S. Addison St. Fare includes soup, salad, vegetarian chili over brown rice, pizzas to sample, cookies and tropical iced tea; the $20 fee includes tax and tip. Reserve by March 30 at vegetarianrichmond.org.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Short Order

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Bag It


When the wine corkage bill goes into effect in July, it carries a few thorns for Virginia restaurateurs. Should they allow customers to bring in their own bottles, and how much should they charge to open and serve them? How much will their profit margins suffer? And will people start brown-bagging some Yellow Tail to pair with that pricey beef tenderloin?

The corkage bill passed relatively quietly in the General Assembly last month and awaits the signature of wine industry-supporting Gov. McDonnell by next week. Hospitality industry lobbyists were mixed on the issue, some claiming it would hurt restaurant owners; others, particularly in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, hoped it would level the playing field with bring-your-own policies in neighboring states.

Restaurant owners can choose to offer corkage services for a fee or free or not at all; standard charges are $10-20, but high-end restaurants might charge significantly more to discourage the practice. While restaurant owners could gain some business, they worry about losing the all-important profit margins that come from wine sales. "It's a scary, slippery slope when we start to give away the services we offer and to give away that piece of our market," says John Van Peppen of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, who spoke against the bill to lawmakers. "Right now the bill is a big negative for us. We carry a large inventory of wine and that's a cost that's associated with running a business." Combine that with expensive stemware and staff time and it's a costly scenario, he adds.

But for some smaller independents, corkage is another way to appeal to a segment of the dining public that likes the affordability or personal-taste factors. Etiquette is straightforward: Guests should call the restaurant to determine its policy and corkage fee. Some oenophiles suggest saving this service for times when rare or aged bottles are brought from a personal cellar for a special occasion. Customers should not bring wines that are on the restaurant's own list. They should tip on the corkage fee and for extra service associated with decanting the wine. Some customers suggest bringing a bottle and ordering a second bottle from the restaurant's wine list. It is polite to offer the sommelier or chef a taste of the wine, particularly if the wine is unusual.

Some industry pros predict that the bill won't change most customer habits and won't be a big issue for most restaurants. But some areas, particularly California wine country, are known for corkage policies that encourage consumption and keep customers and wineries happy. Perhaps the best uses are in restaurants with limited or subpar wine lists where customers would like more options. Small restaurants might welcome the policy while those with state-of-the-art cellars and top-end bottles will likely need a glass of their own to drown out their displeasure.

Wine dinners

Monthly wine dinner at Ellwood Thompson's Café is March 28 at 6 p.m. A three-course meal with wine pairings is $35 and includes paté, rockfish and cassoulet. See ellwoodscafe.com for details.

Barboursville Vineyards joins the Berkeley Hotel for a wine dinner March 24. A reception begins at 6:30 p.m. with oysters on the half shell paired with sauvignon blanc, followed by a four-course meal and wine pairings. Luca Paschina, Barboursville's award-winning winemaker, plays host. Tariff is $59 per person, plus tax and tip. Reserve at 225-5105. berkeleyhotel.com.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Short Order

This Week: A taste of Chicken Mania's Peruvian flair

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2011 at 4:00 AM


Now that Chicken Mania is open at 7524 Forest Hill Ave., neighbors are navigating a bunch of new Peruvian-spiced menu items beyond the marinated rotisserie chicken. Yucca fries (cassava) are a specialty, pictured; along with ceviche; fried shrimp and calamari; steak and pot roast sandwiches; pork chops and chowders. The menu includes relative novelties for the Stratford Hills neighborhood, including huancaina, boiled potatoes with Peruvian-style cream cheese sauce, and soft drinks Inca Kola and Postobon. Desserts include Peruvian custard, key lime pie and tres leches cake. Most entrees are $10 to $12, with sandwiches in the $6 range and sides of beans, plantains and rice. The counter-service business delivers, has takeout and a simple dining room with views into the immaculate, and now bustling, kitchen. Lunch and dinner daily. 267-3340.

To the studs: Two complete gut jobs are in progress for new restaurants that have a long way to go before opening. Selba, owned by Keith Buchanan, is a major rebuild of a former Honda House dealership at 2416 W. Cary St. It's getting a large back dining room with a skylight and operable windows, more tables in the front, and off-street parking in an increasingly interesting food neighborhood near Acacia, Fresca, Lamplighter and others down Robinson St. Chef Abram Jackson is set to be executive chef for a kitchen still waiting to be built.

Over at the former Peking restaurant near Grove and Libbie, contractors have gutted the building  to a shell in order to rebuild it according to specs from owner Chris Tsui of Osaka Sushi. (A mass mailer from Sarah Palin, addressed to the former owner, sits in a trash pile near the entry.)  Look for the Blue Goat to enter the scene once Tsui and designer Helen Reed complete their newest vision for the space. 

Franklin Inn food: Last week we mentioned the reopening of the former Corner CafAc at 800 N. Cleveland St. Now renamed the Franklin Inn, its opening menu thanks neighbors for their support and asks for requests to “keep The Franklin Inn the neighborhood restaurant it was intended to be. … Forgive us for any errors during out start-up process.”  The menu has sliced, sauced sirloin for two ($19.95 with two sides), crab cakes, buffalo shrimp, burgers, club and barbecue sandwiches, soups and salads. Lunch and dinner are served daily at the small refurbished wooden bar, booths and tables in a cozy, vintage spot aiming to please. 

J Frank returns: An upcoming guest chef night at Positive Vibe CafAc reunites longtime volunteer and personal chef J Frank with staff and guests at the Stratford Hills restaurant. A three-course, fixed price meal is available for $35 per person, or can be ordered a la carte from 6 - 8 p.m. March 20. If the scallop dumplings and cod with mussels and chorizo don't reel you in, perhaps the finale — ‘an ode to desserts at the Inn at Little Washington' — might.

Also at the Vibe, St. Patrick's Day brings Irish ballads sung by Russell Lawson and a dinner option of corned bison among other eats. Learn more about this unique restaurant's training mission, international advocacy and general good fun at positivevibecafe.com.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review of review of review. Sneed stirs it up and we get a spankin.

Posted on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Chef Jimmy Sneed fired up some conversation in his blog last Thursday when he reviewed Style Weekly's review of his new place, Fresca on Addison. For those wondering where we stand, here's how we responded to his blog:


Thanks for reiterating your thoughts about the food reviewing process at Style Weekly. We consider it a learning opportunity on all sides.
Please know that there's nothing casual about our process in hiring any food writer. Our reviewers must have working experience in the food service industry, demonstrate an informed passion for restaurants, and travel frequently in the United States and internationally to expand their dining experiences and knowledge of food culture. In addition, naturally, they must be able to communicate well.

While the reviewer in question is several decades younger than our senior food writer, her enthusiasm is reminiscent of your own passion for food and for adventurous and informed eating. She's also seen the industry up close, having spent 10-plus years doing every job possible in a restaurant.

Other Style Weekly food reviewers include a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education who's worked at Saveur magazine and the Food Network, and ran her own catering business; another who helped start Slow Food RVA and a food education program at a local elementary school and has written about food for years; and a former Washington Post reporter who has worked as a carhop, waiter, maitre'd and bartender, and now divides his time between Richmond and food-centric Brooklyn.

The latter reviewer, Don Baker, had this to share about your blog post:

"I can't take issue with anything he said about food descriptions. He knows.
"Where he errs, I believe, is in believing that knowing the minute details about the food and how it was prepared is of paramount interest to the reader. I think our job is to give the reader a road map to the restaurant. Is it awful, OK, good or great? Is it a pleasant place to spend an hour or two? Is it what it purports to be? If it's Italian or just Italian-American, Chinese-Am, Irish-Am. Is the staff courteous, knowledgeable? Is the service timed properly? Are the prices in line with the product and decor? Is the music too weird or the TV (if there must be one) turned low and confined to the bar?
"So I'll make this offer to Jimmy: If he'll settle down and cook the great food he is capable of (and that won't happen at Fresca, no matter how thin the pizza), I'll either quit reviewing or go to culinary school, and if I do the latter, I'll become a chef, because there's more money in it."
Jimmy, it's important to clarify that this reviewer has a positive view of the restaurant industry, and is in fact part of a restaurant family in another city. Her review was well-intentioned and generous; if there are factual errors that have not been corrected, the editors take responsibility for those and will see to it that corrections are made.

We'll link to your post so that your comments can be seen by our readership, and we'll take this challenge as an opportunity to improve our work and better serve the reader.

Deveron Timberlake
Food & Drink Editor

Jason Roop
Editor in Chief

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Short Order

New restaurants are popping up everywhere.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Over at The Mill on MacArthur, owners Josh Carlton, Chip Zimmerman and Amy Foxworthy mill around outside before checking out the interior improvements in progress at the new North Side cafe. It's expected to open in about a month. Photo by Ash Daniel
  • Over at The Mill on MacArthur, owners Josh Carlton, Chip Zimmerman and Amy Foxworthy mill around outside before checking out the interior improvements in progress at the new North Side cafe. It's expected to open in about a month. Photo by Ash Daniel

New and Improved

It's as seasonal as lamb and mint on the menu — spring inspires a building frenzy in the restaurant world. This season more than a dozen new cafes and bistros are opening around Richmond, with more on the way by early summer. Here's a first round of highlights:

The Mill on MacArthur: North Side may become the destination-dining neighborhood with two new projects coming together to supplement the current lineup. Enoteca Sogno is coming soon to Bellevue Avenue. The Mill on MacArthur, set to open in late March, brings together experienced co-owners Amy Foxworthy (former manager of Star-Lite), Josh Carlton and Chip Zimmerman (owners of Mojo's). They're redecorating the former Dos Amigos spot at 4023 MacArthur Ave. with higher ceilings, a smoother space and a menu geared toward families, vegetarians and meat eaters. “It's not necessarily comfort food,” Foxworthy says, “but food we're comfortable making and serving to our families.” It will operate daily from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., with a few two-tops under the awning and an intimate dining room inside. Wine and beer will be served and potentially delivered with food orders. Look for the North Side thin-crust pizza with roasted eggplant and tomatoes, baby spinach and mushrooms; the Key West pizza has conch and capers. Follow progress online including a sample menu at themillrva.com.

Station 2: From the Baja Bean group, a former firehouse at 2016 E. Main St. is being converted into a burger-focused restaurant. Owner Ron Morse says it might be May before completion, but a 100-seat dining room and bar, and a patio for another three dozen patrons, is in the works. Historic wood and brick details and a concrete floor remain to meet the tax-credit standards, and a bar and kitchen are being added. 

Twelve taps will include an all-day $2 draft and a handful of local beers and wines. Morse says the menu ranges from a $3 burger to larger patties with unusual toppings, such as the Elvis, with peanut butter, bacon and grilled bananas for $8.95. Beef comes from a Lexington supplier. “We're trying to open a place for people to come to often,” he says, “with salads, appetizers, and a lot of value for the money.” Ryan Koontz and Jeb White will manage the business.

The Mansion: Since previewing the Hippodrome Theater last month, owner and developer Ron Stallings says he's keeping quiet about details of the new restaurant next to it at 526 N. Second St. The historic space is under renovation, Stallings says, and he's “shooting for a spring opening” — the usual delays notwithstanding.

Ettamae's Cafe: Also in that block, the quaint, two-story cafe with seasonal comfort food and neighborly service is about to unveil dinner hours once its permits are in place. Details and menu changes are coming soon. Ettamaescafe.com.

Franklin Inn: Now serving in the former Corner Cafe space at 800 N. Cleveland St., this spiffed-up new neighborhood spot beckons with a smart overhaul of dAccor and menu. The name and classic American menu reflect an intentional return to the cafe's roots as the Franklin Inn in the 1930s. Lunch and dinner are offered from 11 a.m. daily. 358-5590.

Next week: I'll have details on more new entries into the Richmond restaurant vortex, which shows no signs of dormancy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Short Order

This Week: An St. Patrick's Day mini-guide to Richmond's Irish drinking.

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 4:00 AM

At Rosie Connolly's Pub, manager Helen Emerson and her father Tommy Goulding always expect a crowd for St. Patrick's Day and they get one. But it's easier to hear Goulding's witticisms on other nights of the year.
  • At Rosie Connolly's Pub, manager Helen Emerson and her father Tommy Goulding always expect a crowd for St. Patrick's Day and they get one. But it's easier to hear Goulding's witticisms on other nights of the year.

Stein Ways

Some, including Capital Ale House, have been counting the days till St. Patrick's since early in the year. Others are a little more free-form in how they celebrate. But there's not a bar or restaurant in town that won't throw some sort of love at things green, potato or hoppy on March 17. Here are some starting points:

Rosie Connolly's Pub and Restaurant: Beloved bartender Tommy Goulding keeps this Shockoe Bottom spot among the city's friendliest. “Beer foam is why God gave us sleeves,” he says. Expect a full house for Guinness and dishes like steak and mushroom pie. 1548-A E. Main St. 343-1063.

McCormack's Irish Pub: Don't expect a beer brawl here, but a hearty crowd of regulars, tasteful food and excellence at the bar. If you're into amateur night, this isn't your spot. 12 N. 18th St. 648-1003.

Capital Ale House: Its extensive beer menu is so popular that four locations have are thriving. For St. Patty's, the band Enter the Haggis is likely to sell out at the downtown location's lively music hall at 9 p.m. Look for beer and menu specials at the other outposts. capitalalehouse.com.

Sine' Irish Pub & Restaurant: One of Shockoe Slip's busiest indoor-outdoor restaurants, this massive, wood- and potato-intensive setting is always slammed in March. (It's pronounced shin-AY.) Chef Patty McGuire and team put out an extensive list of Irish and American dishes, with corned beef and cabbage a sure thing, and entertainment matched by people watching. 1327 E. Cary St. 649-7767. sineirishpub.com.

O'Toole's:  Bagpipers, five Celtic bands playing throughout the day, a slate of Irish food and drink specials, and the larger quarters at this longtime Irish classic guarantee a lively full house. 4800 Forest Hill Ave.  233-1781.  otoolesrestaurant.com.

Now Serving

Picasso Eats: More restaurants are getting on the bandwagon to celebrate the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' monster exhibition of Picasso's personal collection, in town until mid-May. Look for specials on the menus at Amici Ristorante in Carytown, Bistro 27 downtown, Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel and others hoping to draw out the festivities with deals on sustenance.

Kitchen changes: Chef Clint Jones moves from sous to executive chef at Fan District delight Avalon. “Changes will be subtle,” he says of the well-regarded small plates menu and seasonal entrees. 2619 W. Main St. 353-9709. And chef Loretta Lane-Montano is now working the kitchen at Oregon Hill trailblazer Mamma 'Zu, just a block away from her former employer, Pescados China Street. 501 S. Pine St. 788-4205. 

Come to supper: New to the North Side favorite Tastebuds American Bistro are Sunday dinner hours from 4:30-8 p.m. “We're winging it to see what the people want,” owner Andrew Wisniewski says. Chef Ryan Baldwin prepares three or four seasonal entrees, an extended small-plates menu and a family-style option, with $5 wines by the glass, and dinner for two served family-style for $26. 4019 MacArthur Ave. 261-6544. http://www.tastebudsamericanbistro.com.

Elusive chef Peter Chang returns to Charlottesville for a feast of epic proportions.

Posted on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM

by Robey Martin

Lately it seems that when anyone mentions Peter Chang, everyone's ears perk up. Where is he? What is next for him? Rumors flew a few months ago about a restaurant opening in Short Pump or perhaps another location in Georgia. The highly coveted chef has been “sighted” at strip malls in Fairfax and Charlottesville. Inspiring hound dog- like tracking, his movements are chronicled in the New Yorker and on Twitter, everyone collectively breath-holding for his next landing pad. He even has his own fan club, the Changians.

Well, just as abruptly as his disappearance from Taste of China in Charlottesville last year, he re-emerges in Charlottesville at Peter Chang's China Grill in the old Wild Greens spot at Barracks Road, opening today and taking reservations only. If the preview I was privy to last night is any indication of the future: Welcome back, Peter. 

For two-plus hours, I was ushered through 12 courses of spicy cuisine. Tightly packed to round tables, servers delivered round after round of delicate food, showcasing exactly the spectacle that has given Chang his fans.
“Numbing” spices, predominately the peppercorn, are a base in Sichuan cuisine. The Sichuan peppercorn is actually the berry of a tree related to the prickly ash tree. These “seeds” from this berry are not hot, per se, but create a tingling back throat and tongue tickle that enriches hot tastes. Chang utilizes the Sichuan peppercorn and red pepper in tandem, coaxing cooperation between the two spices.

Starting with Szechuan Bang Bang Shrimp, Hot and Numbing Dry Beef, and Broiled Chicken with a spicy red sauce, a balanced heat was prevalent through the entirety of the meal. Easily explained as Asian beef jerky, the marinated and dried beef flecked with sesame seeds was overtly but somehow pleasantly tough. The shrimp, fried lightly, and the sliced chicken, adroitly prepared, seemed like an afterthought to the dense beef with its in-your-face crunch.

Phyllo flake-like tofu skin (Shanghai tofu skin rolls) wrapped tightly and sliced, was drenched in a cooling sweet red sauce that broke the hot overtone. Fresh and crisp cilantro-laced fish rolls acted as a sneaky palate cleanser followed by a deceptively light (also cilantro-packed) fish and sour cabbage soup, broth-y and translucent. Transitioning into more meal-like dishes at what seemed like breakneck speed, we were brought clean plates and served Chang's rendition of Dan Dan noodles. Expecting spicy yet again, I was mildly taken aback by the vinegary taste and spagetti-like texture.

Next came a dry-fried eggplant and spicy fragrant duck -- easily my two favorite courses of the evening. Dry-frying is uniquely Sichuan. The technique is supremely difficult using medium heat and actually drying out the ingredient before adding spices. The method produces heavenly odors and a product that is devoid of any greasy feel. Eggplant, known to be wealthy in moisture, shines in this preparation. Duck, again notably fatty, gains heartiness prompting the question from a patron at our table to inquire if the meat was in fact, duck. 

Another stellar example of Chang's cooking prowess is the Pearl Ball. Picture the child-favorite sweet snowballs, replace the coconut with rice and the marshmallow with a whitefish and shrimp “meringue.” While the description sounds less than appetizing, the finished product virtually melts when eaten, a combination of sweet rice and salty, airy fish. Other samplings included a gorgeously presented whole fish, velvet shrimp and mushrooms and a tender baked lamb chop rounding out the savory portion of our meal.

Dessert consisted of red bean rice balls. Fluffy and so uniformly round it was almost comical, the sweet, barely present red bean paste was enough sugar to pop with the popcorn-like taste of the outer core.

Now, before your excitement grows to epic proportions, it is being said that Chang is only at this restaurant to consult briefly and will be moving on to other things in the near future. So if your goal is to eat cuisine prepared by Chang himself, I might head west with little haste.

A old Chinese saying claims: “China is the place for food, Sichuan is the place for flavor.” With last night in mind, I would be inclined to agree.

Peter Chang's China Grill, 434-244-9818, 2162 Barracks Road, Charlottesville

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Outer Banks Seafood closes in Midlothian.

Posted on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Even with price reductions, the Midlothian branch of Outer Banks Seafood Company couldn't draw the numbers it wanted. The restaurant has just closed, although its Virginia Beach location remains in business.
Outer Banks was open less than a year in the former Bottega Bistro space near Ruth's Chris.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

New restaurant, The Blue Goat, coming to former Peking on Grove.

Posted on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM

The Blue Goat is coming to a prized location next to the Westhampton Theater, and promises to add a different dimension to that area's food and drink scene. Demolition is in progress at 5710 Grove Ave., where the Peking Restaurant held forth for three decades but closed more than a year ago.
Now it's in the hands of Chris Tsui and team Osaka — owners of Sushi-O, Wild Ginger and the two locations of Osaka Sushi & Steak. General manager Ren Mefford says the new spot “will be a very different concept for us, and we're super excited. We're always trying to do something that sets us apart.” 
In this case, a complete redo of the 1940s building will make it the group's largest business so far, “not fine dining,” Mefford says, but an affordable Euro-focused menu with a notable chef. Count on design-conscious Tsui to make a big decorative impact; he's teaming with Helen Reed to complete the interior. Watch Style Weekly for updates as the project progresses.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Gator Bites a Poppin' at a Lady Preview

Posted on Fri, Jan 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM

In the 60-minute countdown to a private unveiling of Lady N'awlins Cajun CafAc last night, co-owner Jake Crocker has paint brush in hand, touching up the canvas of a picture chipped during a hurried move-in. The sign guy appears at the door, ready to affix the new logo to the outside window, beneath the still-spinning, lighted bowl that was part of Friend or Pho's animated signage. And then there's the large drawing of a male appendage left over on the chalkboard ceiling that must be politely erased.

This is the Lady, after all.

When guests arrive at 8, all seems in order. Power tools are put away and Crocker is behind the bar with his partners, ready to serve. Down the steps of the restaurant at West Main Street and Stafford Avenue -- the White Dog in a past life -- a wall mural of the Lady herself greets you, glowing fleur-de-lis in hand, wearing a necklace symbolic of something (it slips my mind, but Crocker no doubt will churn out the mythology soon).

Here come the hot, slightly salty gator bites with the big chew and mustard dipping sauce. All surmise it's the only gator served locally. More tasting plates quickly come from the kitchen run by chef Sean Murphy, who also supervises the owners' business just across Stafford, F.W. Sullivan's. There are greens and roasted potatoes, beans and rice, slices of duck breast with Cajun sauce, oysters on the half shell with bacon and cheese, lightly crisp hush puppies and naturally, gumbo.

One guest marvels aloud, “I was just here,” when this was an entirely different concept. Rob Kaplan opened Friend or Pho in the summer, but worked a deal with the Sullivan's crew just after New Year's. He remains as an adviser, and says he'll have some new projects in the works. Sullivan's staff may float between the two venues, Crocker says. And indeed, tall bouncer Tim Harris makes dual appearances tonight.

The Lady is ready for public consumption this weekend.

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