Style's restaurant critics answer all of your dining questions. 

The Discriminating Diner

1. Where can I find a sandwich that would do Dagwood Bumstead proud?

Noel Patrick: Dagwood is a blue-blazer and khaki, Old School company guy, willing to roll up his sleeves but not remove the bow tie. For him Perly's would be the place for the Jefferson with fries or the Jeff McNelly (memoriae sacrum) followed by a good nap, of course.

Davis Morton: I still remember sandwiches I had 25 years ago at Chiocca's Park Avenue when I lived just around the corner. I'm long overdue to go back to refresh my memory of roast beef fresh out of the oven and a tomato sliced just for my sandwich. The New York Deli has also created several notions of what a sandwich should be. At least once a year I need to go there for a Reuben fix. But sometimes when I'm "au courant," I groove on a healthier fistful at Cafe Mosaic.

Rhys: Forget about Dagwood's white-bread-and-deli-meat towers and try something different like a great Cuban press sandwich at Kuba Kuba or an exotic wrap at Café Indochine. But if you must stick to the traditional deli sandwiches, I'd recommend Coppola's — they've got good bread.

2. I've come into some unexpected cash. Where should I splurge and celebrate?

Depends on the circumstance surrounding the sudden good fortune. Inheritance from your great-great tobacco-scoundrel grandfather? Buckhead's for steak, wine, cigars and bourbon. Gift from mom and dad for your anniversary? Lemaire (give the extra to your babysitter). $335 million winning Lotto ticket? Paris.

Morton: A question I'm often asked and the answer so much depends on what your expectations are. I can make a case for any of our Top 10 and a few more, but the taker of the check needs to do his or her homework, too.

3. I only eat dinner so that I can follow it with dessert. What do you recommend I indulge in?

I've grown tired of cakes and oversized chocolates: In the world of dessert, less is more. If there's a crŠme brulée on the list it's mine! Unless, there's a fruit tart lurking about.

Morton: Talk about cliché. Richmond restaurants are gridlocked — key lime pie, tiramisu, crŠme brulée, something decadently chocolate, and cheesecake in some dumb flavor like pumpkin. Occasionally there's some originality. Go for it! It may encourage more.

Rhys: I'll recommend the crepes at Baker's Crust or the budino at Franco's, but at the risk of losing all credibility with the haute cuisine crowd, I honestly think few desserts rise to the level of a fine scoop of ice cream. I'm a big fan of Bev's in Carytown for good ice cream and coffee in a nice, friendly setting.

Carter Braxton: One of my all-time favorite desserts can be found at The Smokey Pig, an Ashland eatery most famous for its barbecue and hush puppies. No matter how full I may be, I simply must order the brownie sundae — a hot, chewy brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and real fudge sauce (not some thin stuff). Worth every single fat gram and calorie.

4. What I drink is just as important as what I eat. Where can I find a wine list that will equal a restaurant's menu?

For me, the world's greatest wine list ranked by quality of vintage is nothing unless it goes with the food. Chef-owned Musselduck's goes the extra mile in matching food with wine right on the menu. Zeus Gallery doesn't do that, but if you have some knowledge of wine and a good flavor memory, it would be hard to beat the quality there.

Morton: For a special occasion, vintage wines may be an important detail. Few Richmond restaurants invest in these cellars that require considerable time and money, though Buckhead's, The Frog and the Redneck, La Petite France and Lemaire all have extensive lists. For more routine dining, I'm more impressed with restaurants that have chosen their wines carefully to complement their menus, and who are willing to offer wines by the glass.

5. I just bought a great new pair of Prada loafers — where should I dine to see and be seen?

Geeez! I hate this question. But if you must: Azzuro, Acacia, du Jour. Next!!

Morton: Ah, how fickle most of us are. How loyal others can be. Peers seek their level (or one higher). Try Easy Street on a Friday night or La Petite France on any weeknight. And then there are those who want to be the arbiters and move from place to place like bees collecting pollen.

Braxton: For ladies, Café Mosaic at River Road Shopping Center is THE place to lunch, but not if you care for any confidentiality. Chat while you wait in line to order, then stumble into one or two more acquaintances as you weave your way to your table. Like du Jour on Grove, tables are in close proximity so eavesdropping is de rigeur.

6. What makes a restaurant great?

What makes a restaurant truly great follows the same logic that dictates why a man's formal wear is always, and only, black and white: to draw all attention to the woman on his arm. He is the canvas to the masterpiece. At a truly great restaurant, the canvas is atmosphere and service, the essential backdrop which, if done well, focuses all attention on the food. I experience this more on occasion — even at the same restaurants — than regularly. The most regularly successful restaurants that meet this criterion for me are Musselduck's, Indochine and Lemaire.

Morton: I love the ambience and the discreet service of Lemaire, the quiet elegance of The Dining Room at the Berkeley or La Petite France. The emphasis that Acacia and The Frog and the Redneck put on freshness of products and delivering them to the table enhanced only enough to let the natural flavors speak for themselves. The Fox Head Inn and Franco's make dining a special occasion with smooth service and interesting food, beautifully presented. Our old favorite Millie's and the new kid on the block Patina Grill are wonderfully innovative in melding flavors and cuisines. Greatness doesn't always come in a large package.

Rhys: A great restaurant need not serve expensive art food with flashy decor. If the staff and the ambience make me feel relaxed and comfortable, and if the kitchen starts with good-quality fresh ingredients and ends up with what I consider a delicious product, then I'll call the restaurant a great one. Great restaurants come in all types. I love the elegant high-end food at places like Acacia and Franco's, but sometimes I'd rather be at a place like 821 Bakery Café with a great friendly feel to it, a laid-back pace and honest healthy food.

7. I've lost 10 pounds on that high-protein diet. Where can I get a great steak?

Believe it or not, Mamma 'Zu has one of the best steaks in town.

Morton: The carnivores know about Ruth's Chris and Buckhead's for great steaks (at a hefty price). Newer to the scene are the Gray Swamp Inn and, farther out into Goochland hunt country, Hondo's, where you can go for a 32-ounce whopper.

Rhys: The diet's bunk, ditch it and go get some good hippie grub at Main Street Grill — it'll do wonders for your karmic balance.

Braxton: For pure, unadulterated carnivorous delight, round up the usual suspects: Ruth's Chris, Buckhead's, Gray Swamp Inn and Hondo's. Portions are generous, and the chefs really know how to grill a steak to the perfect shade of pink.

8. I'm trying to inject some of that old magic back into my relationship. What's the most romantic restaurant in town?

Ooh, la, la! Can you cook?

Morton: The Dining Room at the Berkeley would be my choice for a romantic setting. The ambience lends itself to focusing on your partner, not the other people in the room. The servers are attentive but unobtrusive, and the food is so good that if romance is not rekindled, you at least had a delicious meal.

Rhys: In my experience, if it ain't there, a restaurant isn't going to help. That said, something about Davis and Main makes me feel like I'm in an old black-and-white film noir — which I guess seems "romantic" to me.

Braxton: Candlelit cuisine makes Acacia in Carytown a favorite for a quiet, romantic repast, especially on a balmy evening perfect for al fresco dining on their veranda. The food is divine, the service prompt and the atmosphere dreamy.

9. I haven't had a decent slice of pizza since I left New York. Can you recommend a pizza place that will restore my faith in Richmond?

First of all you've got the wrong standard. Sally's Pizza on Wooster Street in New Haven, Conn., is the greatest pizza, ever! Although some would argue that Pepe's, about half a block from Sally's, is the real deal. We've been all over this town trying to find the answer to this very question. So far, Mary Angela's in Carytown wins.

Morton: Expectations for pizza are as specific as those for barbecue. I like the thin-crust European-style that I've had at Bottega Bistro or Franco's Café, both cooked in wood-fired ovens.

Rhys: I'm not aware of good New York-style pizza in town, but I'm a big fan of Mamma 'Zu's white pizza - it's got delicious tangy cheeses atop a thin crispy crust. Also, the "thin crust" personal pizzas at Bottoms Up are pretty good.

10. Which new young chef seems destined for greatness?

I would love to see Jeff Waite, the chef at Lemaire, step out on his own. And if he's reading this I've got the perfect location.

Morton: There is some wonderful talent in Richmond restaurant kitchens these days. Dale Reitzer at Acacia was nationally recognized by Food & Wine last year, and his preparations are beautiful examples of elegant simplicity. Long Nghiem of the Grass Hut and Brian Munford of Patina Grill are both masters at fusing elements from two or more culinary traditions into exciting new taste sensations. Christopher di Lauro at Bacchus does as much for bold Mediterranean flavors. All are chef-owners and have proved already that they are very serious about what they do.

11. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your restaurant-going life, what would it be?

This really isn't fair. Oyster stew from Mamma 'Zu. Ask me tomorrow and it'll be different.

Morton: I usually order at a restaurant what I don't often eat at home. Hence, I order duck, sweetbreads, rack of lamb, rabbit or wonderful things from the sea that are not readily available in our stores.

Rhys: I couldn't bear to limit myself to one dish for the rest of my life but I'm convinced that if I ate nothing but good homemade sausages, I couldn't possibly live long enough to grow tired of them.

Braxton: Only one thing? No way! OK, if I must. The soup at Stella's, homemade by Stella herself, is to die for. She does a mean roasted red pepper soup and a killer avgolemono. But then there's the tender veal picatta at Frank's in Stony Point, swimming in tangy sauce. And of course sofrito, the saffron seafood dish at Kuba Kuba. And the fruit smoothies at Palani Drive. And the homemade salsa at Su Casa. I told you I couldn't choose just one.

12. Where can I find the best value meal that is not a fast-food restaurant?

Approaching this from the perspective of lunch and assuming that by fast-food we mean chain-type burger and fish joints, I say Cafe Ole downtown has the greatest overall value and the most original atmosphere.

Morton: Ethnic restaurants frequently have wonderful values along with exciting flavors. Among my favorites for a good meal at good value are Thai Diner, India House, Mekong, Chopstix, Grapeleaf, and Su Casa, And Tangle-wood Ordinary offers up old-fashioned Virginia fare at great prices.

Rhys: Value is subjective. I recently had a great meal for two with a nice chunk of "Billy Bread," a fine appetizer and a delicious gorgonzola pasta at Mamma 'Zu for less than $20 — to me that seems like a great value.

13. When you're not reviewing restaurants, where do you go out to eat?

I like small, family-owned, boutique-type places and typically make the dinner rounds at four or five regularly: Vinh Phat traditional Vietnamese restaurant, Hana Zushi, Mary Angela's (great calzone), Mamma 'Zu, Zeus Gallery, and the Hill Café (Sunday brunch).

Morton: I'm a promiscuous diner, tending to eat around, but the Frog and the Redneck, Acacia, The Track, Grafiti Grill and Bacchus are places I usually take guests and visitors from out of town.

Rhys: It changes by the month. Lately I've been taking a lot of meals at Ipanema. Their smallish menu offers creative preparations, artfully presented at reasonable prices. I love the funky atmosphere, but could do without all the second-hand smoke.

Braxton: For lunch I frequent Stella's — there's always something wonderful on the specials board and if nothing rings my bell, there's the great soup and bread. I also adore Chopstix, especially their barbecued chicken over rice noodles, and their fresh spring rolls are absolutely heavenly. For West End convenience, Grafiti Grille does a fine job with salads and sandwiches - their Cobb salad is generous and tasty and their fish of the day (often grilled salmon) salad is healthy. At night, with children in tow, we pick crabs in season at Hastings Crab House, or we snag a reliable sandwich at Phil's Continental Lounge, topped off with a limeade.

14. Out of all the new restaurants out there, which do you think is most likely to succeed?

Once Café Mandolin works out some minor kinks in its service, I think it could take off. Their next challenge will be attracting enough traffic, but the food is very good and the atmosphere upscale Fan. I had a really great smoked salmon and buckwheat crepe on my inaugural brunch visit.

Morton: Too many restaurateurs burn out early because of the ruthless hours required. Young professional chefs should learn in their formal training how to pace themselves in the rigorous requirements. Acacia, Bacchus, The Grass Hut and Patina Grill have young professionals in charge and they have already weathered the first years.

Braxton: I'm impressed by Café Mandolin's culinary creativity and quiet elegance. This new place seems to be enjoying a prolonged debutante party on the dining scene, and that bodes well in establishing loyalty among both Fan neighborhood customers and those willing to venture east of the Boulevard.

15. Who serves the best Asian food in town?

This is a huge category, but I think I have to go with Full Kee because of the immense variety of dishes they can prepare with authenticity.

Morton: Beyond authenticity, my votes would go to Indochine and The Grass Hut. Mekong and House of Vietnam remain favorites for Vietnamese, Full Kee is an interesting Chinese experience, and the Thai Diner offers simple, straightforward food.

Rhys: Indochine, hands down. Though Richmond lacks culinary diversity, Richmonders should be grateful for this excellent French-Vietnamese restaurant which would be a standout in even the most cosmopolitan environment. This place is an absolute must-visit for every Richmonder serious about good food.

16. I'm ready to move beyond Ukrop's sushi. Where should I go for a taste of the real thing?

Look, if you think that Ukrop's bagels are the real deal then you might as well keep getting your sushi there, too. But if you've ever had an H&H bagel (they're available only at Shockoe Espresso and Roastery) and thought, hmmm, this is more like it, then you're ready to step up to Hana Zushi. If you're limber enough, ask for a tatami table. In a pinch one day, though, we stumbled upon a little secret: Sho-Gun in the Willow Lawn food court has really good sushi, too.

Morton: Hana Zushi in the Slip is a place whose time has finally come. I haven't yet visited, but reports are that tiny Akida in the Fan has wonderful sushi.

Rhys: I like Japan House. No trendy pretense here, just good sushi.

17. I hate it when a restaurant is so noisy you can't hear yourself think. What really ticks you off when you're dining out?

I find it amazingly rude when people smoke incessantly in really nice restaurants. I have no problem with smoking in general, lighting up on occasion myself. But you have to understand that smoking absolutely scorches your sense of taste. If I were the chef, I'd be royally cheesed.

Morton: If smoke gets in your eyes and you're in "nonsmoking," you've got a problem. Staff addressing a mixed-gender crowd as "guys" in an upscale eatery is rude, and, "My name is Mike, and I'm your waiter," in a downscale place strikes me as pretentious. It's also annoying when a server asks to remove your plate when someone else at the table is still eating. It implies that either you ate too fast or the other is eating too slowly. And "attitude" at any point is likely to cause me to strike a restaurant from my list.

Rhys: I love all types of restaurants, I just hate it when one presents itself as something other than what it really is. For example, I hate a restaurant that puts together a creative and pricey "art food" menu, but then leaves it to untrained, part-time college kids to crank out the food.

Braxton: Smoke, smoke and smoke are the three things that tick me off most about restaurants. If chefs really understood how much cigarette smoke affects the taste of their hard work, they'd start a revolt. I hate walking through a smoke-filled bar to get to the nonsmoking section. I hate being in a so-called nonsmoking section and smelling smoke wafting over from the smoking section. And, worst of all, I totally despise the sickening smell of a cigar. In addition, a restaurant so noisy that you have to practically yell to be heard by your dining partner gives me a headache and a sore throat. The disappearing waiter is another pet peeve.

18. Taco Bell just doesn't cut it. Where can I find the best Mexican food in town?

The best Mexican food in town belongs to Mexico, in all its incarnations.

Morton: Su Casa is one of my haunts, and if I'm bored with Mexican food, I can find a bit of Greek somewhere in a special to perk my interest.

Rhys: I don't know of any truly great Mexican or Southwestern cuisine in Richmond. Thus my vote goes to Mexico, a restaurant with no surprises - it's exactly what you expected because there are about a million places just like it.

19. I'm all about appearances. Where is the atmosphere just as good as the food?

Atmosphere should be consistent with and work to complement the food, not distract from it. I really like the way Hondo's Chop House handles the pairing, and Patina Grill, too.

Morton: Havana '59 has done very well on appearances for many years and so has Lemaire at The Jefferson. The posh clublike atmosphere of La Petite France matches the cuisine, but I get a bigger kick out of the contained chaos of Mamma 'Zu.

Rhys: Not Mamma 'Zu, where the food is better than the atmosphere, and not Sin é where the atmosphere is better than the food.

20. I truly believe bread is the staff of life. Where will I find the best breadbasket?

I'm drawing a blank here since bread, for me, just gives me something to do with my hands until the appetizers arrive. Belle B stands out in my mind as having really good bread, and olive oil, too.

Morton: I like chewy, peasant bread and am turned off by slices of cottony fluff, warm though they may be, passing as bread. I suspect Montana Gold supplies some good bread baskets about town.

Rhys: I love the oily focaccia at Europa, but the bartender wouldn't reveal "the secret ingredient" which probably means it's sausage grease or duck fat.

Braxton: Ever since Mrs. Morton's Tea Room on Franklin Street closed, I've been pining for really delicious bread. She had the roll to beat all rolls, and no one has come close. I hate to sound like a broken record, but Stella's baskets of fresh, homemade and sometimes-warm, right-out-of-the-oven bread is comfort to the soul. Butter it and you just might keel over in a swoon of sumptuousness.

21. Where can a vegetarian eat as well as a carnivore?

A colleague of mine has done a lot to educate me about being a vegetarian, which has always seemed like a limiting factor when it comes to dining out. She recommends Grafiti Grille and Patina Grill for elegant vegetarian food and Main Street Grill for a more relaxed setting.

Morton: The good news is that vegetarians are getting recognition, and I rarely encounter a menu that doesn't have some good choices for vegetarians, though I wouldn't expect that vegetarians would suggest a chophouse as a good place to get an exciting meal. Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines have many interesting choices also.

Rhys: Ipanema is Richmond's best example of how far vegetarian cuisine has come since the hippie tofu restaurants of the '70s. Instead of featuring meat substitutes, this restaurant celebrates dishes that have never called for meat ingredients.


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