Mixed Breed 

Mushroom risotto and Cheez-Its give Camden’s Dogtown Market its legs.

click to enlarge food19_camdens.jpg

From the State Capitol, it takes about five minutes to cross the Ninth Street Bridge and arrive in Manchester, but the industrial neighborhood feels a world apart from downtown. It was the city of Manchester before it merged with Richmond more than a century ago, and now the region hangs onto the frayed quality of a community steeped in history but gone to seed. In the past few years, signs of change are everywhere — residential lofts, SunTrust Mortgage offices, the Plant Zero art center and industrial-modern office space. Dog Town is on the rise, but at least one niche in this neighborhood needs more filling: where to chow.

Andy Howell is working to change that. The veteran chef, whose credits include Cafe Rustica, Avenue 805 and Zeus Gallery Cafe, crossed the river last fall when he and partner Bill Foster debuted the short-lived Ejay Rin noodle bar in the Corrugated Box building. When the noodle concept didn't catch on, Howell reassessed the market's needs and switched gears.

In a nod to the area's canine-friendly past — reports say the Dog Town nickname refers to a proliferation of pets around the turn of the century — and named after his own pooch, Howell's project, Camden's Dogtown Market, also is a mutt. The gourmet-bodega-meets-dining hybrid answers the riddle, "Where in Richmond can you get kitty litter, Laurent-Perrier champagne and a $15 lasagna dinner, all under one roof?" For an underserved area, it's a fairly brilliant concept, and it looks like this dog might hunt.

Any business that sells packaged snack foods next to refrigerated beer risks a 7-Eleven-like atmosphere, but this is mostly avoided with high, exposed ceilings, natural light, comfy banquettes, and black-and-white photos of Camden the dog. The beer selection is far from commonplace, with dozens of microbrews, local and beyond. Next to bottled water in the cold case are containers of house-made pickles and fresh fruit. The television above the bar is tuned to classic movies.

For lunch, sandwiches include a tasty turkey, ham and bacon club on focaccia ($8), and the deliciously drippy roasty swine ($9), a baguette filled with pork loin, caramelized onions, provolone and red pepper chowchow. It's worth the extra buck to substitute the excellent fries for chips. The only disappointment in both cases is the overly chewy bread. Of course there's a gourmet hot dog, as well as a third-of-a-pound hamburger ($7, add $1 for cheese and $2 for bacon). Those with smaller appetites may want to go for the spinach or salmon salads. Daily specials are winners, such as the dill chicken salad with house-made pickled vegetables.

The pace of the place is at best, relaxed, and at worst, frustratingly slow. At lunchtime, two to-go sandwiches take 20 minutes. At dinner on a Tuesday night, with a total of four patrons dining, bread arrives 30 minutes after we're seated, and a beer goes unfilled for 15. Thankfully, the play list is good — all '70s classics — as is the food once it arrives.

Chef Howell returns to his Mediterranean roots with the dinner menu, showcasing a mix of Italian, French, Spanish and Greek influences. A shrimp, scallop and crab-cake appetizer is savory and flavorful, dressed with a tangy lemon aioli and served over greens ($10, or make it an entree for $16). Steak Karditsa ($20) arrives medium-rare instead of the requested medium, but is rescued by a generous topping of feta-olive tapenade. The patatas bravas subbed for fries are crispy and creamy, served with a spot-on roasted red pepper sauce, but want a bit of salt.

The pick of the litter is the Portuguese stew ($16), filled with Prince Edward Island mussels, potatoes, sausage and shrimp in a smoked paprika broth. Grilled bread saves you the embarrassment of licking the bowl clean. Other offerings include fries and mussels, pork scaloppine saltimbocca and a daily pasta special. The lemon chess pie filling is nicely tart but the crust is rock hard and the ricotta topping is tastes off.

Camden's Dogtown Market sets its own standard, and so far it seems eager to please. S

Camden's Dogtown Market ($$)
201 W. Seventh St.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday (lasagna night); Tuesday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Saturday brunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Market hours: Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m.


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