The South's Best Food Towns
Richmond, Virginia: Weekend Dining Guide
Experience the South’s best-kept culinary secret
photo: Mama J's fried chicken. By Patricia Lyons
Richmond, Virginia is one of The South’s Best Food Towns, selected by the editors of Garden & Gun. See all of the cities here. Do you agree with our picks? Disagree? Have your say on Facebook or Twitter. #SouthernFoodTowns
One of the great thrills of touring John Marshall’s house in Richmond’s Court End neighborhood is encountering the legendary chief justice’s quill, which he insisted on using long after his peers had switched to metal-nib pens. In other words, his visionary opinions were written with yesterday’s feather. That blend of reverence for the past and willingness to tinker with the status quo has always ruled in Richmond—including in its now-bustling food scene. This is a city, after all, where the restaurant of the resident shellfish revivalist, Rappahannock Oyster Company, doesn’t shirk from serving liver pudding and stone-ground grits at a street party, and the chef Jason Alley steadfastly refuses to embellish the traditional pimento cheese he serves alongside butternut squash hummus at Pasture. Alley, in fact, began touting Richmond’s promise years ago, and the food community he foresaw—powered by collaborative eating-and-drinking places and hardworking culinary tradesfolk—has quietly arrived in force.
Amble into Sugar & Twine, as sweet and tidy as the Carytown bakeshop’s name implies. One of Beth Oristian’s buttery hand pies, brimming with seasonal fruit, provides the best counterpart to the carefully brewed, Virginia-based Trager Brothers Coffee. The district surrounding the bakery also offers prime shopping: Just across the street, the estimable Chop Suey Books makes for an ideal place to pick up a cookbook compiled by the James River Garden Club, or the Junior League of Norfolk–Virginia Beach. At the far end of the west-side neighborhood, Ellwood Thompson’s market stocks locally made foodstuffs that can easily make the trip home, such as a bag of Bombolini Pasta, La Vache caramels, and Farmstead Ferments Garlicky Greens Kraut.
For generations, Sally Bell’s Kitchen, designated an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation, has fed Richmonders. And while the boxed-lunch specialist moved to a new address last year, you can still get a cream- cheese-and-olive sandwich with tomato aspic, a cheese wafer, a deviled egg half, and a frosted yellow-batter cupcake for
less than nine bucks. Next, swing south to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and remember there is no shame in retiring from its galleries to ponder the Fabergé eggs or nineteenth-century landscapes over a cocktail. The imaginative bar at the museum’s Amuse restaurant, overlooking the sculpture garden, designs its drinks list to match a current exhibit: A grilled-banana-topped cocktail made with peanut butter puree, for instance, complemented Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis Presley.
Imbibing should continue back downtown over appetizers at Rappahannock Restaurant, a lively raw-oyster arena outfitted with a wood-burning grill. Rappahannock Oyster Company’s own harvest on the half shell is essential, of course, but order the rockfish-and-oyster bourride if there’s even a hint of chill in the air. Then head on to dinner at Pasture, three doors down. There, Jason Alley plays with the flavors he grew up with in southwestern Virginia; everything is Southern and shareable and congenitally suited for pairing with bourbon. Case in point: the meaty ham-cured pork ribs, striped with white sauce lovingly cribbed from Alabama.
It’s hard to imagine a more elegant setting for a nightcap than the Lemaire bar at the close-by Jefferson Hotel, which this year completed a years-long renovation. Amid the Gilded Age opulence of marble and chandeliers, you might also have trouble imagining that a bar honoring Gwar—the city’s cult-favorite heavy-metal band—is mere blocks away. Richmond hasn’t cast off all of its grit just yet.
If there’s an upside to the long line at Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill, it’s the time the wait allows to settle on an order, since you’ll probably waver from the seeded croissant braid to the weekend-only sour-cherry croissant. Fortunately, every choice is correct at Evrim and Evin Dogu’s Turkish-inspired bakery, where the siblings mill their own flour. Another set of siblings helms MaloKin, a line of popped amaranth brittles and bars sold at the year-round South of the James Market in Forest Hill Park—an understandably popular way to while away a Saturday morning.
Since there’s so much to see in downtown’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, including the new location of the Black History Museum, and the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, which honors the nation’s first female bank founder, it only makes sense to lunch there. Mama J’s is one of the city’s best soul-food destinations: It’s where Alley goes for fried chicken, although the restaurant’s blue-crab cakes and candied yams also claim partisans. For dessert, stroll over to Stoplight Gelato Café, the darling of Jackson Ward since eighty-two-year-old Barbara Given opened its doors last year, scooping seasonal and standing selections such as smoked Cajun peanut and cardamom honey.
A block or so away, find a mid-afternoon sip at Saison. Though the Latin-leaning spot has a rustic look compatible with the beard and stocking cap favored by its talented chef, Adam Hall, the cocktails teem with sophistication. The mezcal and tequila portions of the drinks list especially impress: Try the oxtail sopes and an End of Days, which melds agave with a Virginia-brewed IPA.
You have two tempting choices for dinner: Beeline just south to L’Opossum, an almost surreal exposition on joy authored by the chef David Shannon, equal parts flamboyant and familial—the ham biscuit comes topped with escargots. Shannon’s inventiveness breeds loyalty: The cast of regulars includes Richmonders who dine at the bar at least once a week in order to keep up with the takes on foie gras and oysters. Or you could travel seven miles northwest to Walter Bundy’s acclaimed Shagbark, where dinner means the likes of Foggy Ridge Cider–braised pork belly with apple and rutabaga mousse—edible convergences of past and present that taste very much like the future.
An exceptional trail network snakes through Richmond, from a well-marked walking route chronicling the city’s history of slavery to running paths that wind along the James River. Either way, you’re bound to build up an appetite for Metzger Bar & Butchery, an exciting restaurant helmed by Brittanny Anderson, who has found a spectrum of flavors in the Germanic canon. Brunch here can mean schnitzel with duck-fat potatoes or eggs and pork on a pretzel roll, which—if you squint—is a bit like a biscuit.
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