For 2013’s recap of all that happened in Richmond dining, we decided to do things a little differently.
Instead of a regurgitation of news and reviews, we’ve created “The State of #RVAdine.” We want to examine how this year’s culinary news and events have given larger meaning to today’s dining scene.
As friends who just so happen to be a restaurant critic and a food writer, we do a lot of talking on this subject, mostly over instant message and mostly in a manner not fit for public consumption. Minus a few overly colorful phrases, we thought such a candid approach to evaluating 2013’s culinary goings-on was the only way to go.
Dana Craig: So let’s start with the basics: How has the dining scene changed since 2012?
Karri Peifer: What has happened over the last year — in the last two years, actually — is incredible. Not to say nothing was happening before that — Lemaire, Acacia and La Grotta were (and still are) making headlines. There has always been talent in this town. But what started picking up speed in 2012 and accelerated in 2013 is an explosion of talent. Richmond now has more culinary talent than the ability to support it.
DC: Just look at some of the truly innovative restaurants that opened in the past year or so — Belmont Food Shop, Heritage, Saison, Rappahannock, Dutch & Company. And those are in addition to several solid spots that aren’t much older — Amuse, The Magpie, Secco, The Roosevelt and Pasture.
KP: It’s great, but the weird Catch-22 is that we can’t support this influx of talent with available staff. Ask any chef in Richmond and they’ll tell you they can’t keep quality cooks and even dishwashers in their kitchens. And don’t get me started on servers. …
DC: Yeah, good servers are still few and far between in this town. Hey, Richmond, can we work on that in 2014? Please? Our low tolerance for a lack of appetizer plates thanks you.
KP: I was looking back over your reviews, as well as reviews from other Richmond publications, and issues with service seemed to come up nearly every other week. Poor service — inattentive servers, ones who don’t know the menu and ones who seem generally annoyed to find someone sitting at a table in their restaurant — is a frustration for diners and owners.
DC: This surplus of talented chefs is causing quality dining spots to compete against each other for quality staff. But you know what’s most surprising? Chefs are still collaborating in the face of all this — coordinated dinner events, friendships, camaraderie. It’s only making our dining scene stronger.
KP: Yes! These chef collaborations are my favorite thing. There was that benefit for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at Heritage this spring with Joe Sparatta (Heritage); Dale Reitzer (Acacia mid-town); Tim Bereika (formerly of Secco Wine Bar and now with Mosaic Catering); Lee Gregory (The Roosevelt); Owen Lane (The Magpie) and Randy Doetzer (Julep’s New Southern Cuisine). Each chef created one course, which added up to an awesomely cohesive meal.
And then there was Folk Feast this fall, where many of the same chefs came together to raise money for the Richmond Folk Festival — again creating signature dishes — followed by Beast Feast a few weeks later.
DC: And, we can’t forget Ideas in Food at Heritage a couple of months ago. Cookbook author and molecular gastronomy fan H. Alexander Talbot joined a handful of Richmond chefs to cook five courses inspired by Talbot’s latest cookbook, “Maximum Flavor: Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook.”
KP: You and I attended that dinner together, and I think we both said it was one of the best, most inventive meals we’d ever eaten — pepperoni ramen, served in bowls handmade by one of the servers, and a reinterpretation of a pastrami Reuben. That whole experience was flawless.
DC: It was. It was also one of the first times I saw the importance of chef collaboration in action. The sum of all parts made that dinner incredible.
KP: Chef collaboration is what helped put Charleston on the map as a food town, so I’m hoping the same goes for Richmond. When the chefs work together, everyone gets better.
DC: I think that’s what’s driving all the national press Richmond has gotten this year. I’m thrilled Travis Croxton (Rappahannock) was named one of the “24 Restaurant-World Power Players Around the U.S.” by Zagat.
KP: Exactly! Because Croxton’s oyster company, Rappahannock River Oysters, distributes nationally, he draws attention back to Richmond. Of course, he’s just one of many people helping put Richmond on the map.
Andrew Zimmern, from Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern,” came to Richmond in July to check out Peter Chang, the legendary chef behind Peter Chang China Café in Short Pump. Zimmern called Chang the best Chinese chef cooking in America. And, of course, once he was here, he ended up filming at Pasture, too.
DC: At the beginning of this month, Frommer’s named Richmond a “top destination for 2014,” specifically mentioning our “growing slate of breweries (and) farm-to-table restaurants.” And a week later, the Huffington Post complimented our “great food.”
KP: Frommer’s said, “While you weren’t looking, Richmond got cool.” This needs to be on a bumper sticker and a billboard welcoming people to the city.
DC: But all these national accolades don’t negate Richmond’s fickle resistance to change. Just look at The Blue Goat. When it opened two years ago, it was one of the first restaurants to usher in nose-to-tail dining locally, but because of customer feedback, it switched to burgers and pizza in August. That was a huge stunner for me.
KP: I think it was a huge stunner for everyone. The Blue Goat was executing an ambitious concept well in a beautiful space in an affluent part of town, and yet it couldn’t get enough diners to embrace the concept.
DC: It wasn’t alone. Several restaurants rebranded this year. In the past, you’d hear a restaurant wasn’t doing well, and it would close. Now, it closes, changes concepts and reopens, often with a new name.
Look at Avalon, a Fan District mainstay for 20 years. This summer, new owners gutted the place to create Social52, a more casual, drinks-oriented hangout.
KP: Cous Cous did the same thing when it reopened as The Well, though six months later, it closed anyway. The Lucky Buddha underwent a pretty major rebrand, becoming Society American Bistro, a more upscale, food-oriented concept. Mint reinvented itself as a gastropub, and deLux did away with American fare to become a seafood and a raw bar with Pearl.
DC: So it’s not just about becoming more accessible. Some rebrands are taking the more casual route, while others are going more upscale. Seems like Richmond diners are all over the place, and we’re expecting restaurant owners to keep up.
KP: I think restaurant owners are trying to figure out diners. The real issue in Richmond dining right now is growing pains. We’re on the cusp of greatness. We have the chef talent, the restaurant talent, and even the beer and booze talent. But we don’t yet have the mass support needed to sustain all these great restaurants. There are more restaurants than people to support them.
DC: And yet every other weekend, there seems to be a food festival, whether it’s a recurring one (Greek Festival, Broad Appetit) or a new one (Boulevard Pumpkin Festival, Bacon Festival). People clearly dig local food. So why will they stand in line for two hours for bacon but won’t hit up local restaurants more often? Maybe it’s because most festivals are so family-friendly.
KP: I think the family-friendly thing is huge. Our generation parents differently. Sure, thirtysomethings want the occasional kid-free date night on the town, but they also want to eat great food and be with their whole family.
Just look at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery and the popularity of food truck courts. The whole family can get great food — and beer, in the case of Hardywood — and not have to worry about keeping their toddler entertained for an hour. The degree to which a new generation of parents wants kid-friendliness in dining is something local restaurant owners need to pay attention to.
DC: So true. Look at Boka Kantina, the recent bricks-and-mortar manifestation of Boka Tako Truck. Kantina incorporates the something-for-everyone appeal of mobile dining events, allowing kids to tear through tacos while mom and dad sample one of its 60 craft beers.
KP: The craft beers are key to keeping parents happy. I love everything happening in Richmond booze right now. The craft beer explosion, the growing embrace of Virginia wine and, my personal favorite, craft cocktails.
The collaborative spirit that’s happening in dining has extended to craft cocktails. There was that one-night bar pop-up event at Saison early in the spring with the bartenders from Saison, Rappahannock, The Roosevelt. Then, T Leggett from The Roosevelt did his Tiki Bar pop-up at Ipanema Cafe with Tim Quinn from Heritage this summer (with possibly another soon).
DC: Wow, it really has been quite a year. But we still have a ways to go.
KP: Definitely. The component that’s missing is the overall support from diners. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of diners are supporting local restaurants, and certainly not everyone has the resources to dine out regularly.
DC: But when people do have the opportunity to dine out, it seems as if they’re going to the same old places and eating the same old things. Can we take a break from the crabcakes? Just for a second?
KP: My challenge to diners in 2014 is this: If you have the opportunity to be experimental, do it. Just try. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But it’s a meal. It’s not even a haircut. It’s two hours of your life.
DC: Two hours that might make you realize you can get down with some sweetbreads.