April 16, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Bars & Restaurants 

Most powerful drinks: Cabo's

There aren't any spotlights on the liquor bottles in this elegant Broad Street bistro. No lighted display stands for all the flavors of Absolut vodka, no neon outlines on the shelves that hold the bourbon. Patrons come here for the ambience, the live jazz, the artfully presented plates. Not to get hammered. But there's no denying it — the drinks pack a punch. A whiskey sour is all the evidence needed. The first thing to touch your tongue is whiskey, not the sickly yellow sour mix that's too liberally used in other bars. Strong, but not overwhelming. It is good.

Bartender Debbie Bassett, who works at Cabo's three times per week, seems a bit surprised when asked how, exactly, she pours good drinks. "I don't know what to say to that," she says. With 10 years experience, we guess it comes naturally. Bassett did check a reporter's ID before serving — so don't get any ideas, kids.

Most filling restaurant / Most boring restaurant where you always end up: Joe's Inn

When you go out to eat you should have one goal and one goal only: Portions, baby, portions! Garnish is for wimps, atmosphere is for nerds and nothing matters more than the quantity of your serving. When it comes to this Hunter/Gatherer approach to dining nobody beats Joe's Inn. Joe's has whatever you could possibly want with bigger servings than you can possibly eat. Everything on the menu, from the pizza to the sandwiches to the lasagna, has been super-sized. Just remember: no matter how hungry you are you simply aren't hungrier than a Godzilla-sized spaghetti-and-meatballs platter.

Along with portions, readers seem drawn to security, voting Joe's as a standby. It may not be adventurous, but at least it's safe. Looking through the menu is like visiting an old friend — you've seen it all before, you've eaten it all before and most likely you've taken a lot of it home in a doggie bag before. Sure it's a little less exciting than that weird Thai place on the corner, but good food is never that dull, is it?

Most romantic restaurant: The Melting Pot

West-Enders have a claim to fame — or at least to romance — that leaves the rest of us dripping with desire. It's a little slice of saucy heaven. The Melting Pot at Gayton Crossing is your choice for most romantic restaurant. It could be because nothing says an intimate dining experience quite like fondue. You and your partner can choose your pleasure from a variety of cooking styles then take turns popping vegetables into one another's mouths or else feign sword fighting with the meat skewers. It's cheesy, chocolatey fun. The Melting Pot boasts some of the most informed and conscientious servers in town — talk about working for tips — who go the extra mile to ensure fondue gets the attention and respect it deserves. And if all this isn't enough to simmer those romantic urges, the wine list is one of the most extensive in town. The evening isn't cheap, but it's a date that'll melt your heart.

Most satisfying cheap eats: Sidewalk Café

There are certain but precious few places where you like the menu enough and amply trust its consistency to warrant routine visits. Luckily, Richmond has its share of hearty havens. Who among you hasn't craved saganaki, Greek nachos or calamari with the special tzatziki dressing at Sidewalk? And did we mention the Guiness? Or that huge plate of spaghetti? It comes as little surprise that Sidewalk Café on Main Street is dubbed champion of satisfying cheap eats. One insider tip: the place goes through such vast quantities of food that you're practically assured your food will be fresh. And daily specials like seafood are purchased wholesale from the same vendors who supply much pricier Fan and area restaurants.

A close second in this category is Su Casa on Broad Street near Malvern. It's a place as famous for its speed as its terrific enchiladas, chalupas and baklava. Yes, baklava! Third place goes to newcomer Café Diem that makes a mean chicken quesadilla.

Most trendy bar crowd: Capital Ale house

Maybe it's the idea of forging a frontier that attracts the fashionable. Just like in L.A. where the hippest spots are in the unlikeliest of neighborhoods, Richmond trend-setters apparently are flocking to the no-man's land between stuffy downtown and the fratty Fan. Richmond's bastion of the golden nectar, the Capital Ale House has nabbed the Most Trendy Bar Crowd award. So what makes the well-coifed flock to an ale house? Not apple martinis. Try 40 taps and more than 200 bottled beers — including some Belgian ales at a chic $18 a pop — that the cool can imbibe from around the globe, and in fancy beer glasses too. Plus, if you sit at the bar you can keep your hops chilled on the ice rail that runs the length of the bar. It's one of only four ice rails in North America — now that's cool! Manager Rachel Ryan says the crowd is an eclectic bunch, "We have everyone from lawyers and the business clientele, to the Fan crowd."

Star-lite Dining and Lounge in the Fan takes second place; no doubt the skimpily clad, tattoo-covered waitresses tipped the scales in Star-lite's favor.

Most Essential Restaurant to Richmond / Most Overrated Restaurant: The Tobacco Company

Apparently, The Tobacco Company also is the restaurant most likely to garner diametrically opposed responses. For more than 25 years, this homage to the Victorian heyday of conspicuous consumption has packed 'em in. What makes it essential? It could be the lush surroundings, swank atmosphere or the yard or two of black cloth stretched over the cigarette girls. Marketing Director David Campbell believes it is "being consistent … the high standard of service, food and atmosphere." It might be the simple fact that it has remained open in an area where restaurants come and go like a fool's fortune. Regardless, many believe that the food doesn't live up to the scene. But the hordes who pack the bar and dining rooms every weekend support the theory that it may be better to feel good than to meal good.


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