Creative Economy 

Cheap eats never tasted so good.

An occasional special, such as lobster over pasta might cost as much as $13.

Owners Brian and Jennifer Coats opened this hole-in-the wall last August as a trendy soup-and-sandwich place. The name boiled over during a brainstorming session with a friend. While they would like to take credit for being hip, at the time, neither the Coats nor their friend knew that "Simmer Down" was the name of a Bob Marley song.

Since then, the original concept has expanded into a full-service eatery, albeit a loud, smoky one with an active bar trade. It survives as a serious restaurant because of the culinary skills of Brian, 31, and Jennifer, 30, who met in Blacksburg while working in various restaurants to ease the tuition burden at Virginia Tech. Brian liked the kitchen so much that he dropped out during his fourth year as an architecture major — "the first three years were creative, but the fourth was all about business" — and moved to Richmond. Jennifer had come to Richmond a year earlier. They were married three years ago.

Brian wound up as the fine-dining chef at the Country Club of Virginia, but left to pursue a catering career; Jennifer became a kitchen manager for Ukrop's. Now, they have combined their interests in the restaurant and a catering service called "Great Expectations."

These days most of the cooking, which takes place in a galley up front in view of the street, is done by kitchen manager John Eckermeyer. But Brian and Jennifer are seldom far away.

The saucepans get a real workout at "Simmer Down," for both culinary and practical reasons.

Half a dozen entrees on the evening menu begin life in sautee pans coated with olive oil, to which is added a varying combination of mushrooms, peppers, onions, garlic and spices. The cooked-to-order dishes are completed with one of a variety of main ingredients — chicken, beef, pasta, cheese, or in in the case of "Mega Mushrooms," with several varieties of fungi, including shitake, Portobello and buttons.

The practical reason for all that stove-top cooking is that in such a small work space, the ovens are often filled with sandwiches being heated.

The kitchen is at its best after 5 p.m. A good place to start is with a creamy cucumber dip ($3.65) that comes with a mound of parsley-sprinkled potato chips for dipping. Another notable starter is a crusty bruschetta ($4.11) just right for dipping in a Mediterranean sauce.

A nightly special on a recent visit was an etouffée ($8.50 including tax) that seamlessly blended spicy shrimp and andouille sausage — though there was not much of the latter — in a brown roux, served over rice and complemented with a ratatouille of carrots, squash, red peppers and onions.

The main plates were adorned with color-contrasting squiggles — the lasagna on a white plate decorated by a hot red, chili-garlic sauce called Sriracha, the red etouffée plate rimmed in a lime-sour cream sauce.

Before 5 p.m. the offerings are soups, salads and sandwiches. I liked the Cuban pork sandwich ($5.48), but a hardy bean soup, thick enough for the spoon to stand in, was a bit salty for my taste. Nancy was well-satisfied with a combo of tomato bisque and half a grilled-chicken club with bacon and American cheese ($5.94), although it took 20 minutes for the food to arrive.

Brian says he is "serious about the food," but his goal is hampered by tolerance for the atmosphere of a college hangout. And there is the endemic smoking, much of it produced by the otherwise proficient wait-staff, along with regulars at the 12-stool bar, the latter attracted by a glass of beer for $1.50 and generous shots of booze.

If you really want rowdy, try the Karaoke on Monday nights. Otherwise, opt for an early dinner. It's worth the occasional hassle. S

Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d' and has a dining Web site, www.diningpro.com. He last reviewed restaurants for Style in the late '80s.

Simmer Down ($)

308 N. Laurel St.


Lunch and dinner: Monday - Thursday 11a.m. to midnight; Friday 11 a.m. to 2. a.m

Dinner: Saturday 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Closed Sunday.


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