Side Dish 

Soft Openings Pack a Wallop

Also open, in the former Stella's at West Main and Shields, is the fine-dining restaurant Rowland. The corner bistro is now bathed in chocolate and copper tones and serves up new-South cuisine such as scallops with corn pudding, blackened fish with étouffée, pecan-crusted pork chops with white-cheddar macaroni, braised lamb shank over cassoulet and duckling with pumpkin ravioli. New to Richmond menus are the lobster potpie and the fresh spring roll of the day.

The entire wait staff will be familiar. And Charlie Williams, who was a highly regarded chef at Stella's, remains in the kitchen alongside owner Bruce Rowland, who says the restaurant's soft opening was unexpectedly brisk, with a steady tribe of first-weekers ready to sample the new concept. Rowland and his wife, Virginia, are now serving dinner nightly.

A third soft opening last week was at Ginger in the former Great Wraps location at 3145 W. Cary St. Owner Thanita Kingkittisack continues to operate Thai Garden in Innsbrook, but she has brought in chef Anusck Sodcsuen from California to run her Carytown kitchen. The eye-pleasing décor in plums and creams distinguishes the spot from its neighborhood rivals, but the menu of Thai salads, soups, noodles, curries and stir fries is pretty much identical to those down the block except for the addition of a few Chinese dishes. One fun difference: a cozy upstairs dining room with multicolored floor cushions and low tables, ready for a private party. Ginger is open for lunch, dinner and carryout daily.

If you're invited to a soft opening, or if you wander into a restaurant that's in its first or second week, consider the rules of etiquette as suggested by those who should know:

First, the owners are looking for support and encouragement, but also polite and discreet feedback. It's helpful to give constructive criticism, but only about things that can actually be fixed. No fair pointing out that every menu in town now offers sweetbreads or that the decor tanks. But if service needs fine-tuning and the drinks are too weak, or the chairs need cushions, and the chef is heavy-handed with the sriracha, speak up when asked.

Always tip, even if the meal is comped.

If you're close to the owners, or you're a wine or food distributor who values the business, send a fabulous flower arrangement that goes with the décor.

Cut a little slack if things aren't yet letter-perfect. There's a reason Style doesn't review restaurants until they've been open for three months. Sometimes it takes a while to iron out the problems.

Spread the word. New businesses rely on word-of-mouth, and there are plenty of food fanatics in this town who want to get in on a new good thing.

Have a tip about the Richmond restaurant scene? Send it to sidedish@styleweekly.com

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