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Looking for the best Greek food, the funkiest atmosphere or the most creative chef? Our restaurant critics tell you where to find it. 

Questions of Taste

1. What new restaurant is most likely to succeed?

Tyler Fleming: None of the area's newest restaurants impress me as being incredibly successful — if you define that as exceptional food, wonderful ambiance and a winning experience. But success and "staying power" may be two different things.

Barrister's Cafe in the John Marshall Hotel — tied to a long-standing success in Williamsburg — needs work in the pacing and presentation arenas, but it has location going for it. Pronto Pizzeria — near Willow Lawn — produces high-quality food and is blessed with its association with other established restaurants and a great location.

Pegasus — a solid Greek eatery in the near West End — is friendly and reliable.

Obviously Carytown's Acacia is a firmly established with the chef, Dale Reitzer, being nationally and internationally lauded. A new North Side spot, 1223 Belle B, is getting wonderful word-of-mouth but it's way too early to tell.

Davis Morton: Two new downtown restaurants, run by veteran chefs on the Richmond scene, have the experience and the locations to become fixtures. Michael Hall at The Vine, adjacent to the Carpenter Center, and John Maxwell at Chef Maxwell's at 5th and Franklin offer innovative and contemporary variations on old Southern themes. Avenue 805, brought to life by Barry Pruitt, a veteran on the Fan restaurant scene, will probably become a Fan fixture with its bistro-diner menu and good prices. Europa in the Slip offers tantalizing tapas for grazing or more substantial fare for serious diners. It's good food in an energetic, cacophonous and urban setting. Michelle Williams, who also co-owns Hardshell next door, knows her audience.

Brad Bradley: Acacia has been declared a winner in the big leagues. But I wonder how many other Richmond restaurants were considered?

2. Where would you take your foodie friends from New York?

Fleming: If the friends are food snobs who don't know a whit about Virginia, I'd take them somewhere to show off our culture: The Frog and the Redneck in the Slip or David's White House in Providence Forge or, for lunch, the wonderful Arts Cafe at the Virginia Museum. I also adore the Robins Tea House at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, the closest thing Richmond can offer to a Tavern on the Green.

If they are conservatives, the Dining Room at the Berkeley and Lemaire fit the bill. Farther afield, The Inn at Little Washington and the Trellis should please even the fussiest foodies.

For friends who appreciate a place with attitude, perhaps we'd settle in at Amici after a day of shopping Carytown. Or, perhaps we'd do Acacia and the Byrd. Or we'd pop in for jazz at Barrister's in the Old John Marshall or give Mamma 'Zu in Oregon Hill a go.

Morton: After an initial visit, Big Apple attorneys, for whom a billable minute probably exceeds the minimum hourly wage, wanted to revisit The Frog and the Redneck — they liked the prices almost as much as the food! The artsy foodies loved Millie's for the diner atmosphere, the "multicultural" menu and the artful presentations but thought the prices high. Another friend at the Dining Room at the Berkeley was surprised that the food could be so good in Richmond. Zeus Gallery is tucked in such an out-of-the-way place and Richard Arnold's ever-changing menu such a treat that it seems like a real find for those who have never been.

Bradley: Mamma 'Zu. Just last week I took someone who has lived in Manhattan all his life. He said there was nothing better in New York.

Braxton: You really can't beat Helen's for true indigenous flavor. Helen's is one part Fan funk, one part fabulous food creatively prepared by chefs who don't mind doing things a bit differently. Definitely a place to be proud of when toting around visiting sophisticates.

3. Can you recommend a great little neighborhood joint?

Fleming: Every Fan spot is someone's neighborhood favorite. North Siders swear by Dot's Back, which is loud and smoky and friendly to a diverse crowd. O'Toole's just south of the river is a winning spot for basic fare and a convivial atmosphere. The Hill Cafe on Church Hill is a treasure. I'm dying to see what happens with Siné, the new Irish pub in the Slip.

Morton: Melito's in the West End has mastered the formula. The price is right, the food is fresh and homemade, the service is friendly and familiar, and tables are scarce.

Bradley: No matter that it's moved, Stella Dikos of Stella's has a knack for making you feel like you belong.

Braxton: Grafiti Grille, in the near and dear West End, is dependably friendly and accessible as long as you go early (lunch and dinner), but it is sure to rate on the conventional scale in terms of clientele. On the other hand, 821 Bakery Café is the perfect place to hang out, talk, sip and dine with a very eclectic crowd. At either place, I'm supremely happy.

4. Who are the city's most creative chefs?

Fleming: The Howard Stern of Richmond kitchens is still Chef Q Derks of Avalon. This shock chef does strange, and sometimes wonderful, things with food.

Morton: Most innovation in recent years has been "fusion," combining elements from two or more cuisines. Millie's has fused the way for 10 years now, though chefs have come and gone. Brian Munford of Patina Grill in the Far West End is doing some exciting things, and Grafiti Grille's David Hughes continues to serve up new and interesting combinations. Granite on Grove's David Harmon plays interesting taste games especially with Southwestern flavors. For interesting Asian nuances with American restaurant mainstays, Long Nghiem at The Grass Hut is a master.

Bradley: Robert Ramsey of Fox Head Inn. He makes his own sausages, for instance — using everything from rabbit to seafood. He applies the same sense of innovation to everything, soup to dessert.

5. What restaurants are worth the drive?

Morton: I think any of the restaurants on The "It List" are worthy of a detour or as a destination. The Inn at Little Washington would be my choice for an overnight R & R, but closer to home I could be happy with dinner at the restaurant at Ford's Colony or the Trellis in Williamsburg.

Braxton: Indian Fields not only offers great Southernesque food in an old-house setting, but getting there's just as much fun as eating there. Down Route 5, past ye olde plantations and through a lush tunnel of overhanging ancient trees … oh my, this is true peaceful romance.

6. Where should I take the kids?

Fleming: For inexpensive Greek and Italian and video games in a separate kiddie play area try the Greek Circus. We also love the River City Dinner — they can fiddle with the booth-size juke boxes; Havana '59 because they can play cards while we wait; and Dot's Back Inn on North Side because the kids can roller skate or play soccer out front, and the proprietor keeps a table and bench outside and will let them eat there.

Morton: To school and to Grandmother's.

Bradley: The din at Joe's Inn is always so loud, you don't have to shush the kids every minute.

Braxton: The Tavern at Triangle Park actually welcomes kids with open arms, crayons and place mats for coloring. On a recent visit, the hostess asked my son about something on his T-shirt and he was speechless — most restaurants would rather not see or hear children. Plus, the kids' menu is reasonable, and parents are happy too - oohhh, that crab cake sandwich!

7. I'm in the mood for Indian. Where should I go?

Morton: The friendly atmosphere and the consistent quality of the food has made India House a favorite when I need to spice up my life. Ram Pai knows the business and his customers. You won't be a stranger long.

Bradley: These days, in Richmond, all the Indian restaurants seem to be on a par, with no great standouts.

8. Where can vegetarians eat as well as carnivores?

Morton: The good news for vegetarians is that, as their numbers have increased, almost any decent restaurant has one or more vegetarian preparations, often beyond the ubiquitous pasta dishes. The Grafiti Grille, for instance, features at least one well-conceived vegetarian dish all the time. Vietnamese, Thai and Indian restaurants are also good destinations for the ones who learned to love their veggies.

Bradley: 821 Bakery Cafe leads with a '60s sensibility in attitude, so you can be sure that vegetarians will feel quite at home. Meanwhile, carnivores can have their bacon.

9. I want to impress my hipster friends. Where can I find a funky atmosphere?

Fleming: Millie's or Mamma 'Zu

Morton: A pool parlor would not generally be the place you'd head for a good meal, but The Triple offers just that along with its handsome pool tables. Thai Diner began life doubling as a High's Ice Cream Parlor. A sundae is a wonderful way to cool the heat of a spicy Thai sauce. 821 Bakery Cafe is as eccentric as its interesting clientele — students, artists, artisans, and foodies. The menu changes, but the food is frequently a real treat and value.

Bradley: Millie's branded the haute diner in Richmond. Even though there have been followers, all are just homage to the one that began the trend.

Braxton: If funky ever means weird, then Mamma 'Zu might fill this bill. Dark and even a bit dingy with waitstaff that often exude an attitude of indifference — all the while instructing you on what to order from the chalkboard menu, perhaps to make their and the chef's lives easier. This Oregon Hill outpost may just be funk defined.

10. Crystal, china and linen are more my style. Who's got the most elegant ambience?

Morton: The exquisite details of the architecture, the décor, and the appointments at Lemaire are seldom found these days. It is coupled with good service and food. You may want to prolong a memorable evening with a brandy or digestif in the grandeur of the lower lobby. In another realm, plush La Petite France has a cozier, more intimate, more personal elegance.

Bradley: For elegance, La Petite France and Lemaire are classics.

Braxton: For a quiet, civilized, quality experience that never fails, Lemaire is the place. From the lighting — not too bright, not too dark — to the linen to the discreetly attentive service, there is no finer establishment in town for elegance.

Continue to Part 2: More recommendations from Style's restaurant critics
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