Fare Game 

The year's winners and losers in the risky business of Richmond dining.

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Are Richmond diners as fickle as some chefs claim they are? Could be. What worked on the local food scene one month was sometimes dead in the water the next. Several well-hyped and well-reviewed restaurants came and went in 2006 just like the crowds, leaving owners to question whether the market is over-saturated, or whether the best concept — or more likely, the best booze margin — wins.

Closings included two neighbors in Carytown: longtime gems Indochine and Limani. Duro didn't last six months. In the Fan, The Wooden Spoon shuttered after a short run, and a Virginia Commonwealth University-area breakfast spot, The Out of the Box Cereal Company, dropped out after a semester or so.

Shockoe Bottom's quirky Little Ochi Hide-out fell victim to sluggish service and sales, and the flashy New Orleans-inspired Jacqueomo's bustled some nights and fizzled others, finally going dark after less than a year. Julian's, once an institution, ended its second run in Henrico County; Midlothian's Fabulous Foods also stopped serving after attempts to build a dinner business didn't fly. Circus Mediterranean Grill closed so quickly its own staff was caught off-guard. Others, like jazz clubs Glenn's Tavern and Fusion, hung on as long as possible before pulling the plug.

Many owners blame the franchises for their difficulties, but even the top chains at Stony Point Fashion Park reported drops in sales this year; meanwhile, more fast-casual franchises invaded the suburbs, particularly Stratford Hills and Short Pump, pitching stronger price competition and the test-kitchen predictability that some diners prefer.

But more than a few restaurateurs were unafraid of the statistics and jumped into the fray in 2006, often raising the atmospherics, if not the culinary standard, here. Bank is an example of a great-looking newcomer still getting its legs with a lively bar crowd and a regularly tweaked menu.

Cous Cous, the reopened Havana '59, Dd33 Asian Bistro and Popkin Tavern all show off memorable interiors and specific concepts, and diners seem to appreciate the opportunity to experiment with new flavors and presentations in coolly engineered settings.

Tarrant's Drug downtown and Table 9 in the Fan are building followings with solid fare and low-key coziness. In the West End, Da Lat expands Mekong's legacy of reliable Vietnamese, and Chadar switched from Saigon 2000's Vietnamese to some of the city's best Thai cuisine. Paragon Siam holds a similar distinction in Midlothian, replacing Bangkok Café with a brighter, more nuanced version of Thai standards.

Other strong points include Emilio's at Woodlake, which is charming commuters with authentic tapas; The Piano Club with its retro-steakhouse personality and live music; and Zed Café in Lakeside, featuring organic foods and spa cuisine in an area more prone to beer and burgers.

Carytown Seafood at Innsbrook and The Boathouse repackaged existing places; same with Blue Fox Café in the former High's sandwich shop. Huckleberries Tea Room moved west, Feathernesters brought classic luncheon recipes to Lakeside shoppers. Quieter openings included Haru Sushi in the West End, Jack's in Midlothian, and La'V's Homemade Dining in Shockoe Bottom.

City Limit near the University of Richmond has given a former pub a grown-up feel. The reinvention of Carytown's New York Deli may be the most-discussed hot spot with wildly varying opinions but an unmistakable vibe in a people-watcher's paradise.

Other changes include Lucky Buddha where Lucky Lounge used to be; new interiors at Robin Inn and Star-Lite; a Museum District first at Caliente, where a covered patio won approval from the city and patrons; and more table space at Zeus Gallery Café.

Chez Foushee added dinner service for First Fridays art walks. Perly's decided weekend dinner service wasn't strong enough to continue.

Zippy's changed hands, as did Dot's Back Inn, Karen's Diner and La Petite France. Regulars are waiting to see how their favorites will be affected.

In sum, Richmond lost Italian fare, gained quasi-Moroccan, better Ethiopian (at Nile), and fusion cuisine with stolen-from-New York menus at more than a few bistros. Comfort foods, sandwiches and burgers remained strong throughout the city, and crab cakes are still the biggest seller at nearly every restaurant that offers them. S

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