Restaurant of the Year: Mezzanine 

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It's not a dream space, to be sure. The kitchen is proudly known as one of the smallest in the city, a nucleus of raw energy and ingredients that's constantly on view, baffling the crowd with its output. Customers must crane to see the blackboard menu, trying to remember all of the dishes before squeezing back to the table to ponder. They might confess to being startled at a particular server's cleavage right at eye level (not all of us feel this way), or be charmed by the dry finesse of British waiter John. They might notice that art is respected here — chosen by co-owner Randy O'Dell with Eric Schindler Gallery.

But the atmosphere inside this busy, two-level restaurant would be inconsequential if not for honest, approachable food — and on this point, we like what we taste.

Carytown newcomer Mezzanine, tucked next to the Christian Science reading room and opened just last year at 3433 W. Cary St., wins our hearts for a multitude of reasons. For giving Richmond the local-foods cooking we crave and for providing an experience that's a bit revved-up and never staid, our restaurant critics choose Mezzanine as Style Weekly's 2009 Restaurant of the Year.

It helps that chef Todd Johnson is a rising star in Richmond's culinary realm, serious about sourcing and simplicity, on the apex of timeliness. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, his work history spans a healthy gamut — from Williamsburg's Trellis to Maui Spago. Here, he teams with sous-chef Nelson Miller to put Mezzanine in the trenches of the local-foods movement; what they find from their hand-picked purveyors is what they fix for Richmond's supper.

As critic Joseph W. Cates wrote of the sustainability mission in his November review of the restaurant: “The generic meaning is taking without using up. The meaning at Mezzanine is, whenever possible, to choose ingredients raised here in Virginia. The results include less pollution from transportation, the preservation of farmland nearby, and delicious food fresh from our own rivers, our bay, our shores and our fields.”

“Food isn't about ideas,” Cates wrote. “It's about farms and farmers, plants and animals, harvests and shipping, knives and fire, love and comfort. At least, that's what food can be. And at Mezzanine, with each plate served, partners Randy O'Dell, Patrick Stamper and Todd Johnson say, ‘Yes, we can.’”

The kitchen is not without missteps — we're thinking of a certain tuna amouse bouche that underwhelmed — but Johnson is a serious chef who takes great care to present an alluring menu and plates that mostly exceed expectations.

The food tastes sincere. It might be as simple as roasted chicken, or scallops skewered with lemon grass, sweet potato fritters, goat cheese stacked with beets. It's not novel or earth-shattering, but satisfyingly pure and straightforward. It's food for our times at mostly moderate prices.

“For locality and sustainability, we send a message that this matters,” Cates says. “But Mezzanine scores big on other fronts as well — a good ratio of staff-to-patron, not too formal, simple enough cuisine with attention to detail, the sourcing, the tiny kitchen, and don't forget the Web site design.” (Although it should display its menu there.) And while the blackboard menu is lovely, printed menus are possible and desirable — Acacia Mid-town does this on inexpensive paper, “indicating seasonal changes and not parsimony,” as critic Brandon Fox notes.

Alcohol tastes particularly good within Mezzanine's lively environs, especially Stamper's well-chosen, moderately priced wines and the inevitable brunch cocktails that reverberate against Rat Pack music and the serious din upstairs.

The street-side, covered patio (uncomfortable chairs notwithstanding) is a bonus, as long as backs are turned away from the golden arches so improbably glowing across the street. “I hope they'll make the patio nonsmoking,” critic Don Baker suggests, “otherwise everyone else will have to walk through a haze.”

We like the joyful vibe, and the fact that O'Dell, Stamper and Johnson are longtime local restaurant workers with the wherewithal to create their own place while maintaining their friendship. They've paid dues at most of the Fan's trendier watering holes, collecting a fan base that appreciates the scene, the taste, the portion and the price point. As Baker says, you can eat a small plate here that doesn't feel like an appetizer but a sensibly sized entrAce.

Critic John Haddad expects to see more adventurousness and outreach as the restaurant moves forward. “I will be curious to see what their summer menu looks like when there is so much great produce,” he says — “curious too about their partnerships with other artisanal purveyors.”

And this is what we hope Mezzanine, and other local establishments, continue to embrace — the emphasis on fresh, local, simple. Mezzanine is not the first restaurant to do that here, but it's making the others take notice. — Deveron Timberlake

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