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You have to look to more than the food to figure out how the Tobacco Company Restaurant built its reputation. 

Secrets of Success

Every city must have a place like the Tobacco Company Restaurant. It's the kind of place visitors inevitably ask about because it's the only place they've heard of, and because somebody once told them they absolutely had to eat there. They are so convinced that they're in for treat that, in the end, it doesn't seem to matter what the food is actually like, they absolutely love it. Whenever I visit these places I'm left with the same nagging question — how did that food build this reputation? The answer to this question is probably the subject of a seminar at hotel and restaurant management school. I suspect it has to do with the somewhat obvious fact that a restaurant's reputation is not built on food alone. Certainly, the mediocre fare recently served to me at two business lunches at the Tobacco Company Restaurant cannot account for this establishment's widespread fame.

For lunch starters, The Tobacco Company offers soups and salads. The restaurant's signature she-crab Soup ($4.95) has a rich cream base with a pleasant background of sherry. Our sample was either over-thickened with roux, or a little over-reduced, but nevertheless still enjoyable. A chicken and bell pepper soup of the day ($3.95) was much less appealing with its thickened clear broth, chewy strings of chicken and diced green pepper.

[image-1]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comThe grilled tuna Ni‡oise salad ($8.50), as our attentive server kindly pointed out, is really more of a meal than a starter. The Tobacco Company's version of this "salade composé" doesn't stray too far from the Mediterranean classic. Mixed greens in tangy vinaigrette are topped with green beans (not the delicate haricot vert), red new potatoes, tomatoes and olives. Absent are the sometimes included capers, eggs and anchovies. I was delighted to find potatoes that were neither soft nor mushy, green beans that were of a nice hue and crunch, and tuna that, although a tad over-grilled, was fresh and thickly cut. It was the olives, rather, that were the real disappointment — tasteless, canned black olives are a plain insult to any dish that takes it name from the city of Ni‡e. Once I got over the olive indignation, I was able to enjoy what was, for the most part, a nice enough plate of food.

From the lunch entrée selections we tried two pastas, a wrap and a sandwich. Company chicken ($8.95) is a cheese tortellini dish with ungainly pieces of sautéed chicken breast, button mushrooms, diced red bell peppers and broccoli which purports to be "tossed" in pesto. Notwithstanding that description, the kitchen more or less immersed my company fowl in a warm bath of unimpressive and oily pesto. The fettuccine caponata ($6.25) featured the same bland black olives, about two pieces of eggplant and an unexceptional tomato sauce topped with coarsely grated pecorino cheese. Sadly, it suffered the same overabundance of oil.

[image-2]Photo by Stacy Warner / richmond.comNor did the blackened shrimp wrap ($7.95) lift my spirits. According to the menu, this entrée involves blackened shrimp, pepper jack cheese and rice wrapped in a garlic-herb tortilla. Aside from the presence of Cajun spices, however, there was nothing "blackened" about the shrimp. This was an unfortunate oversight because properly blackened shrimp could have offered a nice foil for what ended up being a mushy and nondescript filling. Moreover the cheese — typically a stranger to Cajun-inspired seafood dishes — seemed wholly out of place. Finally, aside from the ubiquitous and disappointing factory-made bun, I can't complain about the Big Sur chicken sandwich ($5.95). Its charred but juicy breast of chicken was topped with sautéed onions, mushrooms and Monterey Jack cheese and served with a mound of hot crispy fries. Good, but certainly not cuisine that merits special acclaim.

Desserts were about on par with the rest of the offerings. I enjoyed the blueberry trifle, a rich mix of vanilla custard, coconut and cake bits, and the bourbon-pecan pie was fine, despite the absence of any detectable bourbon flavor. But a slice of apple pie had a painfully soggy crust, and German chocolate cake was stale enough that the server intentionally left it off the tab.

The truly remarkable thing is that I anticipate return trips to the Tobacco Company Restaurant. Why? Because, despite the food, there are things to like about this place: It's convenient to downtown, the staff is professional and courteous, the Victorian-inspired décor is unusual, the three-tiered dining room with its large atrium and wooden beams is architecturally interesting, and the food is not overly expensive. Also, it's where the out-of-town guests want to dine. And therein, I suspect, lies the popularity of the Tobacco Company
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