"Go West, young man,” newspaper editor Horace Greeley reputedly said in the 19th century. The phrase might be Richmond’s dining scene’s new motto. But let’s throw some women into the mix, shall we?
Two local restaurateurs — Michelle Williams and Chris Tsui — have opened three restaurants in Henrico’s GreenGate, a mixed-use development that combines residential with freestanding retail and restaurants. And that sounds kind of like a real neighborhood.
“J.B. [Gurley] from Markel/Eagle approached us and said, ‘Hey, we want to re-create Carytown and the Museum District in the West End,’” says Williams. She had an aha moment — it was the spot she’d long looked for. Tsui grew up in Short Pump and wanted to come back to the area. “I really liked and believed in what the landlords were doing with the project at GreenGate,” he says.
Diners in the suburbs, Williams says, have increasingly wanted local restaurants closer to home. “Everyone we’ve talked to has said they’re finally getting what they want — and that’s nonchains. I don’t know if we would have heard that five to eight years ago.”
The city though, still proves irresistible to most, and Scott’s Addition seems to be the tastiest nexus. Although breweries staked their claim— and continue to do so — restaurants are starting to pop up. Metzger Bar & Butchery’s Brittanny Anderson opened her latest project, Brenner Pass, and its sibling coffee and bakery, Chairlift, in the neighborhood, as did barbecue joint Smohk. And Jason Alley and Michelle Jones of Comfort and Pasture, along with Saison’s Jay Bayer, decided to go into the brewery business — along with their signature eats and a bunch of arcade games with Bingo on West Broad Street. This comes after the trio opened Flora in the old Balliceaux space and brought Oaxaca to the Fan. But it’ll have some competition in the arcade bar business. Robert Lupica plans to open one of his own on West Leigh Street, plus there will soon be an upscale bowling alley by the Cookie Factory Lofts.
Speaking of breweries — and aren’t we always? — the local craft beer explosion keeps, well, exploding. The long-awaited Väsen opened in the Handcraft Building, Center of the Universe Brewing Co. unlocked the doors of Origin Beer Lab in downtown Ashland, Legend Brewing Co. expanded to Portsmouth, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery opened in Charlottesville, Strangeways Brewing has a new outpost in Fredericksburg, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery has plans for a spot in Lynchburg and Steam Bell Brewery plans to open a taproom and seven-barrel brewing system on West Main Street. And this is just what our local beer businesses have been up to: Our brew-obsessed governor says the industry has grown 468 percent since 2012 — and that adds a whopping $9.34 billion a year to the state’s economy.
All of the restaurants, breweries, cideries and distilleries are creating a new kind of tourism for Richmond as well. Fire, Flour & Fork, an event which brings in national chefs and cookbook authors to the city each year, has had a big part bumping up Richmond’s visibility to outsiders. “One of our goals is to put the Richmond culinary scene on a larger platform,” says Maureen Egan, co-organizer and co-owner of Richmond Real Food Tours. The magazine Garden & Gun, she says, will cover the extravaganza this year, and in the past, there’s been coverage from around the state, including The Washington Post. “Obviously, we want people to come to Fire, Flour & Fork,” she says, “but we want them to come to Richmond other times, too. We want to pique their interest.”
And of course, what would the Richmond food scene be without grocery wars? First Wegman’s last year and now big-boy player Publix have set up shop on both sides of the river. Although right now, with the sad, darkened windows of the former Martin’s stores balefully looking out on empty parking lots, most shoppers are feeling a dearth of choice. But then, we’ve been spoiled: The Richmond market has been overstored for years. And that’s about to end soon anyway, as Publix renovates and reopens the Martin’s locations that it purchased in one fell swoop last year. Now that we can get Ukrop’s chicken salad and White House rolls at Kroger, we say, bring it on.
The restaurant business is a man’s world, but that doesn’t seem to faze Michelle Williams. There are eight establishments in the group she founded with Jared Golden and Ted Wallof — two of which opened this year. The far West End outposts of the Daily Kitchen & Bar and East Coast Provisions — dubbed West Coast Provisions after its new location — can be found in the GreenGate development. The West End was always in her and Golden's sights, Williams says, but it took 10 years to find the right location. Part of what enticed them to GreenGate were the 350 houses behind it. That neighborhood feel and up-to-the-minute interior design — they've renovated the Hard Shell this past year and are currently renovating the Daily in Carytown and the Hill Cafe — are the elements that tie all of Richmond Restaurant Group's establishments together.
Chris Tsui has been on a roll: Starting with Osaka Sushi & Steak in 2005, the restaurateur started slowly when he opened Wild Ginger three years later, but with the opening of Foo Dog in 2014, his expansion of Eat Restaurant Partners accelerated. Fat Dragon came next, then retro burger joint Boulevard Burger & Brew in the old Kelly’s Jet System Hamburgers space, with Asian Mexican fusion spot Wong Gonzalez following hard on its heels. You’d think Tsui would take a break in 2017, but instead, he transformed his restaurant Blue Goat into Beijing on Grove — a nod to his family ties and formative years in the building when it housed the Peking on Grove. Still, the siren call of expansion must be hard to resist — Tsui recently opened Red Salt Chophouse & Sushi near Williams’ two restaurants at GreenGate. With eight restaurants under his belt, Tsui plans to keep up the pace. An as-yet-unnamed pizza place — with a brick oven that rotates pizza for super-fast cooking and an almost 1,700 square-foot patio — will go into the old GRTC bus depot this spring. And that will make nine.
3. Eric McKay, Co-owner, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and chairman, Virginia Craft Brewers Guild
Hardywood changed the landscape in this city. In 2011, co-owner Eric McKay and partner Patrick Murtaugh invited food trucks and bands to their nascent brewery, and a new way for Richmonders to socialize was born. To make it happen, the two helped shape the law that made beer drinking — and selling — legal on-site. The duo opened a satellite operation in Charlottesville this year, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Hardywood’s plans to distribute its beer in the United Kingdom. And the brewery’s $28 million expansion plan is chugging along in Goochland. But McKay has taken another step beyond his role as brewery owner. For the last two years, he’s served as chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. The advocacy group’s mission is to grow the state’s beer industry, and it seems to be doing a bang-up job. As of June, Virginia became home to 206 breweries — 21 of which are in and around the Richmond area.
Jason Alley moved into a shabby corner of West Broad Street, named his restaurant Comfort and launched a neighborhood. It’s the stuff legends are made of — and then, with business partner Michele Jones, he did it again. Pasture ignited a movement on East Grace Street that’s made it Richmond’s new restaurant row. And a few years later, Jay Bayer had his own neighborhood-revitalizing role to play when he opened Saison around the corner from Comfort. Jones is now managing partner of Comfort as well, and she and Alley teamed with Bayer this year to unlock the doors of Flora, a Oaxcan restaurant in the old Balliceaux space. They kept the music playing in the back room — a tradition dating back to Bogart’s, the building’s original occupant, but the three must be chronically bored. Shortly thereafter, they began a $1 million project — this time one of those new-fangled concepts that bring beer, food and arcade games together. Bingo — the building housed an old bingo parlor — is set to open at the end of the year.
It’s a gourmet orgy that takes over restaurants and other venues throughout the city during a four-day weekend in the fall: Fire, Flour & Fork has, over the last four years, brought well-known chefs such as Husk’s Sean Brock, Christina Tosi of Milk Bar, the Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell and this year, Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, and paired them with our own culinary luminaries for dinners and educational panels. The two indefatigable magicians behind it, Maureen Egan and Susan Winiecki, also run Real Richmond Food Tours, which takes attendees all over the city to try bites at restaurants both under the radar and those squarely in its cross hairs. But Egan and Winiecki, who is also Richmond magazine’s editorial director, aren’t on this list simply because they conjure fabulous meals from famous chefs. A more important aspect of Fire, Flour & Fork is that it shows the best of Richmond to the movers and shakers in the wider food world — and so far, they seem to like what they see.
Restaurant owner Kendra Feather became a serial restaurateur almost by accident. When the space now occupied by Garnett’s Cafe, her spot in the Fan, became available, she took a leap faith to expand beyond her first restaurant, Ipanema Cafe on Grace Street. Next, she took on fine dining, opening the Roosevelt in Church Hill which inaugurated chef and co-owner Lee Gregory’s James Beard Award nomination run. At the time, the revival of the neighborhood north of East Broad Street was in its infancy. The Roosevelt marked it as a destination, and soon silver-haired West Enders were rubbing elbows with interestingly tattooed hipsters. This year Feather turned her gaze to South Side and made Semmes Avenue the new home for Laura Lee’s, winning over a neighborhood that seemed to be waiting for just such a place to exist. Her latest? A cozy incarnation of Garnett's Cafe at the Valentine.
It started with a little spot called Merroir on the Rappahannock River that was supposed to be place for river goers to have an oyster or two and a glass of wine. The Rappahannock Oyster Co. farmers Ryan and Travis Croxton found themselves suddenly in the restaurant business with its runaway success. As the two cousin’s oysters found their way onto plates at the restaurants of renowned chefs such as Jose Andrès and Eric Ripert, offers for restaurant space came rolling in. Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Washington’s Union Market came first, with Richmond’s Rappahannock following. A fire closed the restaurant in March, but Rapp Session next door kept things going until renovations were complete. Travis Croxton has opened at least a dozen more restaurants throughout Virginia and North Carolina in the past few years, and now, the cousins’ latest joint venture, the newest Rappahannock Oyster Bar, clocking in at 4,000 square feet, opened this spring in the Cigar Factory Building in Charleston, South Carolina.
Just when you think famous restaurateur couple Johnny and Katrina Giavos are taking a break, they open another spot. The owners of Sidewalk Cafe, Kitchen 64, the Continental and Stella’s, and co-owners of Kuba Kuba, Kuba Kuba Dos and Perly’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, have a habit of launching the next great new thing. Most of us — well, all of us — were taken by surprise when we learned the Giavoses’ latest venture was a second outpost of Stella’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Like its Richmond counterpart, this transplant seduced its new city and the spot is booked practically every night. Next up is a new place next door to South Side’s Galley with Kuba Kuba partner Manny Mendez, and perhaps a second Stella’s Market in Scott’s Addition.
Rick Hood’s small natural grocery store started as City Market on Patterson Avenue in 1989. It soon outgrew that space and re-emerged at the end of Carytown taking the intersection of Ellwood Avenue and Thompson Street as its new name. Organic products were harder to come by in those days, but Hood stood at the vanguard. As more Virginians turned to farming, he began aggressively getting as much fresh produce locally as he could, providing another sales venue for them beyond farmers markets. But Hood didn’t stop with produce — he also advised and encouraged small local business owners making products that include hot sauce, specialty bakery items and breakout success story Health Warrior chia bars. The grocery wars may rage in Richmond — and Whole Foods is creeping closer — but Hood consistently keeps his store one step ahead of the game with expansion and innovation.
Native Richmonder Amy Hicks didn’t set out to be a farmer — she just loved gardening. As her passion outgrew her backyard in the 1990s, she found herself a farmer at the 17th Street Farmers’ Market selling ripe heirloom tomatoes, bicolor squash and a riot of brilliantly hued flowers. Hicks was one of the first to weather the grueling Department of Agriculture organic certification process, and that, in turn, inspired others. “The yearly inspections are intensely thorough,” Hicks says, “but this is how we would farm — certified or not.” As more markets popped up around the area, Hicks helped raise the flag of the Byrd House Market in 2007 in Oregon Hill as one of its first vendors. Truckloads of organic produce later, she rallied its other vendors and helped move the newly renamed Birdhouse Farmers Market up the road behind Randolph Community Center after William Byrd Community House was forced to close.
CORRECTION: Richmond Restaurant Group's Jared Golden was left off the list when this article originally published. And the number of Eat Restaurant Partners' holdings was originally listed as six — Chris Tsui owns eight restaurants, with another on the way. Also, Kendra Feather's latest project, along with husband John Murden, Garnett's at the Valentine, was inadvertently left out.