April 13, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Just the Place 

To get romantic. To try something new. To see and be seen. Our critics name the restaurants that match the moment.

To heat things up

JWC: The table-side flambé at Julep's is intimate and delicious. I don't know if bananas Foster or cherries jubilee are technically aphrodisiacs, but the ambience of the upstairs with its very few tables might necessitate fire extinguishers for various reasons.

MMC: TJ's at the Jefferson Hotel. The food's fabulous without being over-the-top expensive. And the sofas in the lobby are perfect for pre- or post-dinner canoodling.

DB: Helen's. Ask for a booth in the back.

To nurse a hangover

MMC: Poe's Pub. Hangovers require three things: starchy, fried food; salty protein (think eggs and bacon or a burger); and the hair of the dog. And you'll never feel out of place indulging in any of the three at any time at Poe's. Plus, they do it right.

DB: Buddy's. Arrive about noon on Sunday, and you won't be alone in your misery.

JWC: The Roundhouse Meeting of AA in Byrd Park on Sundays.

When you need a big table

MMC: Edo's Squid. Unlike Mamma 'Zu, they take reservations. And it's always so loud you won't have to worry about your group being too noisy.

DB: Maggiano's. Choose the umpteen-course family-style dinner, and you can settle in for a big evening.

JWC: Call me a lowbrow yahoo, but for my money, the back room at Carini's Pizza in the far East End offers the most bang for the buck. They have great pizza and air hockey, although I almost had to withhold this one from nomination because they recently got rid of their pinball machines.

For quiet conversation

DB: The Track. The food and wine choices are top-notch, the booths have high backs, and no one is going to sing "Happy Birthday" to you or anyone else.

MMC: Joe's Inn late on a weekday afternoon. Same good food, Legend beer by the pitcher and just the early-dining soccer moms and kids in the other booths.

JWC: Lemaire is the pinnacle of professional serving. You can count on three things: a great meal, subtle music and being left the hell alone by your waiter.

To see and be seen

DWB: Can Can. Put on your hippest outfit, go without a reservation and find a spot at the long zinc bar, where you can sip cosmopolitans until a table opens up.

MMC: Millie's for brunch. The who's-who crowd may disperse to various locales on Friday and Saturday nights, but they always seem to show up here for Bloody Marys and spicy scrambles on Sunday.

JWC: Can Can. It's the place to be seen these days, especially with spring blooming. Expect to see Carytown revelers checking each other out as they enter and exit River City's newest hot spot.

To Avoid being seen

JWC: The basement bar at Acapella's on Church Hill. How many people even know this place exists?

MMC: Bill's Barbecue. Does anyone still go there?

When You're Craving foie gras

DB: 1 North Belmont. There's not a lot of competition for this delicacy.

JWC: If you're into foie gras, get it at Richmond's original French restaurant, La Petite France, where Chef Paul serves it in all its traditional splendor.

MMC: Nowhere. I've never been keen on the overpriced, pan-seared (read, often underdone and greasy) confit-doused lobes that seem to enthrall everyone from the West Village to the West End. Talk to me when one of the chefs in this city decides to do foie gras in a paté or terrine, served with thin, hot triangles of white-bread toast and a glass of Sauterne.

Is This Richmond?

MMC: Full Kee. The day two Cantonese women shared their plate of fried smelt with me was the day I knew anytime I needed to escape the crab cake/roast salmon oh-so-Richmond rigmarole, this was the place to come.

DB: Copper Grill. The owner of this over-the-top spot said he wanted to create the feel of a Vegas restaurant, which he did with the 10-ton lobsters and prices to match, and goofy service ideas. But it still lacks showgirls on swings or tigers without a leash.

JWC: Hyperlink Café by Virginia Commonwealth University has the futuristic, streamlined feel of an Internet café in a booming metropolis. Good music, mediocre food and wireless — what more could you want? Oh yeah, better food.

Oh, this is Richmond

JWC: There's something about a table across from the Farmers' Market on a warm summer day that makes me feel very much at home in Richmond. Café Gutenberg neatly fills a niche in the Bottom that leaves me hopeful for more development in that district.

MMC: Sally Bell's Kitchen. Slip in for a box lunch on a sunny day, tote your treats to Libby Hill Park (cleaner and safer than ever) and stare at the trees and the skyline while you nibble on luncheon fare from a bygone era.

DB: Byram's Lobster House. If you're under 60, you'll lower the median age by a decade, and if you go at lunch, you can listen to Rush Limbaugh blaring from the speakers, like him or not.

For a first date

JWC: Call me romantic, but I have to say The Diamond. With nothing else to do but down a couple dogs, take in the downtown skyline and talk, you may actually get to know the person you're sitting beside.

MMC: Gelati Celesti. Low risk (no salad greens to get stuck in your teeth), low investment and the perfect lead-in to hand-holding while you catch a flick at the West Tower. Besides, what could be sexier than a bowl or cone full of divine sweetness?

DB: Davis & Main. Soft lights, high-back booths, cool music and great burgers.

To try something new

JWC: If you still haven't been to Nile, drop what you're doing and go there now. This is the unique Ethiopian dining experience in Richmond. How long has it been since you were required to eat with your hands?

MMC: Can Can. Their daily specials read like a "best of" list from the top restaurants in New York. Beef cheeks? Bring it on!

DB: Limani Fish Grill. Here's a seafood restaurant that allows you to broaden your choices beyond grouper, snapper and tilapia.

A Reason to cross a bridge

DB: Ruth's Chris. It may be a chain, but you'd never know it from the location in a former plantation house, where both the food and surroundings are elegant.

JWC: You cross several bridges driving west along I-64 before you get to C-ville and the only good tapas joint around. Mas is well worth the drive.

MMC: The Forest. Smoky, sensationally Southern (in that south-of-the-river kind of way) and the best burgers in town!

to find home cooking

MMC: Pegasus. Its avgolemono soup is what you'd want your Greek mother to comfort you with.

DB: Karen's. This small lunch spot serves up daily specials that include meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, smothered pork chops and trimmings that include mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and grits.

JWC: It's been a couple of years now, but there's still a buzz about Comfort serving just that — good comfort food. What a unique idea: eating out that's a lot like staying home.

For Anything but home cooking

JWC: Patina in the West End is still putting out the best real fusion food in the city. The dishes are exciting and they make sense. I always look forward to a trip there.

DB: 1 North Belmont. The French-trained, Dutch-born chef/owner Fritz Huntjens melds his culinary expertise with years of work pleasing finicky hotel guests with an elegantly understated gourmet dining experience.

For a Chocolate habit

JWC: Jean Jacques Bakery in Cary Court has the best miniature desserts, including the best chocolate-frosted brownie and éclair in town.

DB: The Melting Pot. Save room for dessert at this fondue chain, where the chocolate is smooth and warm.

MMC: Café Gutenberg has a chocolate-turtle tart that is sweet, dark, crunchy perfection.

To teach the kids table manners

DB: The Jefferson Hotel Sunday brunch. Everyone is dressed to the nines, so your little boy won't stand out like Little Lord Fauntleroy in his Sunday suit and bow tie, and there are enough different plates and silverware to learn the correct choice for any course.

MMC: Legend Brewery has a menu to please even the pickiest small fry. Plus, the tables are far enough apart to keep potential blowouts from bothering the diners around you.

JWC: I want my kids to be comfortable with the knowledge that meat was intended to be ripped from the bone by these wonderful little incisors we possess. Therefore, I'll be training them up good at Buz & Ned's, where there's no sauce stain that a wet-nap or change of attitude can't handle.

To eat lunch with a tightwad

MMC: DMV Cafeteria. Better food than you think, and the name alone will put meal misers at ease.

JWC: The sushi and bento box at Hana Zushi in the Slip is a tie with the lunch specials at Saigon on Grace Street for best overall deal. The food is great, and lunch for under six bucks is a steal!

To impress a foodie

JWC: Chef Ian Soon at Kobe is the best in town at making you laugh while fearing for your life in the face of his spinning blades and slapping spatulas. If you've never seen the flaming Mt. Fuji onion, you're in for a treat, and the food is as wonderful as the show.

DB: Acacia if you want to dress up, Millie's if you prefer jeans. Either way, you won't have to apologize to that out-of-town guest who still thinks Richmond is a backwater where you have to carry your wine in a paper bag.

MMC: Country Doughnut Shop, 4300 Williamsburg Road. Gourmet dining is as common as grass across America, but real doughnuts made the old-fashioned way in a joint straight out of a Eudora Welty story are a rare, rare delicacy.

When you want a doggie bag

MMC: Joe's Inn or the Crazy Greek. The huge portions of baked spaghetti should not be consumed in one sitting — and taste so good cold!

DB: Maggiano's. The portions are so large that two people can share half a salad and still walk out with enough shopping bags to make the clerks at Nordstrom jealous.

JWC: Is it even possible to get out of Joe's Inn without a doggie bag in tow?

to see other chefs

DB: Mamma 'Zu. You can tell the professional cooks because they arrive late and may be the only ones getting friendly service.

JWC: 3 Monkeys. Show up around 12:30 a.m. and look for the telltale goofy pants and clogs.

For a Girls' night out

MMC: Avalon. Oh-so-girly (and oh-so-strong!) cocktails and a setting that's quiet enough to share those Sex-and-the-Cityesque confessions without having to yell them out over a noisy crowd.

DB: Six Burner. Get a center table, where you can see and be seen, and choose Wednesday night, where a liter of wine is just 10 bucks.

JWC: Uh, Babe's?

for The old standby

DB: Six Burner. Consistently innovative food at reasonable prices. And Joe's Inn, cheap and comfortable.

MMC: Famous Dave's Barbecue stand at The Diamond. With season tickets to Braves games, I do a lot of "dining" there. You could have knocked me out with a plastic fork when I tried Famous Dave's on a whim. It's pretty darned good.

JWC: Perly's. A cup of black coffee, the Sunday Times, and a big old ham and cheese omelet with home fries — and the best darn biscuits I've ever had — is how I start an ideal Sunday. I don't even have to order anymore — they just slap it down on the table three minutes after I walk in.

for the last supper

DB: Assuming this is farewell to a relationship, the Short Pump Food Court, where it's busy and noisy and no one will notice him or her stomping out.

MMC: Maggiano's. Service is supplied by a battalion of different waiters and the place is so labyrinthine that the chances of seeing anyone you know while eating are slim. So you'll have total privacy (if not total intimacy) to deliver your Dear John. And once the deed is done, there's built-in retail therapy at the adjacent mall.

JWC: Joe's Inn, definitely. It's busy enough to prohibit a serious scene being made, they'll happily split your check, and afterwards you're bound to languish in a deep, pasta-induced coma.

Meet the Critics

Don Baker, who has worked as a car hop, waiter, bartender and maitre d', first wrote about restaurants for Style in the late 1980s. Then after a decade as a political reporter for The Washington Post, he retired in 1999 and resumed reviewing restaurants, first with the now-defunct magazine 64, and, since 2002, again for Style.

Joseph W. Cates has held nearly every restaurant position, from dishwasher to bartender, server, manager and owner. In apprenticeships with top chefs, he studied sauces with Antonio Billancini, Italian cuisine with Michael Grazancio and Asian fusion with Jeffery McChesney. His head chef positions include Lotus Cardroom & Cafe in Portland, Ore.; Lino's of Rockford, Ill.; and Davis & Main here in Richmond. These days, Cates is cultivating his passions for teaching and writing, and enjoying his time on the other side of the table.

Mary Margaret Chappell is a freelance writer and former pastry chef who studied cooking and pastry in Grenoble, France. After apprenticing in a French boulangerie/patisserie for two years, she moved to New York and worked in several restaurants before becoming a food editor for First for Women magazine. She has translated cookbooks from French to English, taught cooking classes and provided cooking demonstrations for the New York City Greenmarkets. She is currently a contributing editor and recipe tester for Vegetarian Times magazine.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com



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