It’s been 17 months since a three-alarm fire tore through The Tobacco Company in Shockoe Slip, but now the iconic Richmond restaurant is preparing to reopen.
The Tobacco Company will be back in business on Monday, Dec. 10.
The restaurant first opened in July 1977 at 1201 E. Cary St. under owner Jerry Cable. And the unveiling of the new space next month may well be on par with the 1970s opening, when the level of detail in the interior and the mass scale of the renovation of the circa-1860 building were presented in a Real Estate section cover story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1977 under the headline “ ‘Crazy scientist’ cooks up restaurant.”
It was the details — the brass elevator brought in from New York, the $13,500 beveled glass window, the 100-year-old pine floors — that were important in 1977 and attracted attention. And it’s the details in 2018 that made a restoration that could have taken a few weeks stretch to 17 months.
The 2018 reopening will unveil a massive renovation and restoration that includes hand-carved stained-glass windows; large-scale art deco-inspired paintings, specially commissioned for the restaurant; an LED-lit bar; a fully replicated, reclaimed wood bar; chandeliers from the set of the 2012 movie “Lincoln”; and gold-leafing of nearly everything.
“We’ve been gold-leafing for three months,” said David Campbell, who has served as the spokesperson for the restaurant since the fire. “It’s been a labor of love.”
Campbell has also served the restaurant in some capacity nearly since day one. He started at The Tobacco Company restaurant in 1978 as “a water boy” and slowly worked his way up to his current role, overseeing events, decor, private parties and anything else as needed.
And Campbell was on site on July 8, 2017 — the day the fire started around 10 a.m. in the first-floor kitchen area of the restaurant and quickly spread to all three floors of the 14,000-square-foot space, before the water that extinguished the fire flooded down to the basement-level club space. The fire was under control after two hours and no one was injured, but significant damage was done to the entire structure. The fire occurred one week before the restaurant’s 40th anniversary.
“It was the sinking of the Titanic,” Campbell said. “The fire marshal gave me five minutes inside. He said, ‘Grab whatever you need.’ ” Campbell recalled wading through nearly waist-high water to get to the office and secure computers, records and whatever else he could.
The aftermath was a series of emotions, Campbell said, for everyone involved.
“At first, it’s sad,” he said. “But you have to get to the point where you let it go.”
Campbell said the outreach from Richmonders was incredible — from customers and the restaurant suppliers down to city officials allowing their contractors to skirt parking restrictions in order to get to work. But it was the Richmond restaurant community that moved Campbell the most.
“Everyone reached out,” Campbell said. “I mean, everyone.”
He said other restaurant owners hired workers who needed work — often when they didn’t need staffing themselves.
“They said, ‘If we can help, we’re going to help. I want to applaud the Richmond restaurant community,” he said.
Initially, they thought the repairs would take a few months, but as crews got inside and began to assess the damage, Campbell said, the restaurant’s owner came up with a vision, just as he had in the 1970s. Instead of restoring the restaurant to its 1970s glory, Cable wanted to bring the building that once housed a tobacco warehouse, a sanitation supply store, a grocery warehouse, a paint company and, most famously, “the brightest jewel in the Shockoe Slip crown” — as The Tobacco Company was described in 1979 — into the 21st century.
“I’m so glad Jerry pushed for this,” Campbell said. “It’s more inviting now. This is a softer side of the fern bar. This is beautiful.”
Many of the details and changes are minor, but they’re everywhere. The Victorian Lounge — the backroom space on the first floor — is now the Deco Lounge, with its own bar, plush seating and a leather banquette; the entry bar is more open; and bar-top, leather seating populates the first floor, where a small-plate menu will roll out. The third floor, usually reserved for large parties, now houses art deco-inspired booths — and awaits a new generation of private diners where mingling and noshing is more important than sitting in a row. Many of the plants and the clutter — the classic 1970s fern bar decor — are gone. But traces remain — enough to remind diners and Richmonders of the legacy of more than 40 years in Richmond dining.
And that’s no small thing.
The Tobacco Company was one of the first restaurants to open in Shockoe Slip (Sam Miller’s was the first in 1973), and a year after it opened, Shockoe was highlighted as the dining destination neighborhood of Richmond by The Times-Dispatch. An estimated 3,000 customers packed the area each night in 1978, according to the newspaper’s archives, vying for a chance to try the latest cocktail at one of the six restaurants that lined the Slip, or to check out live music. Two-hour waits were common, especially once The Tobacco Company basement “discotheque,” as it was described in the 1970s, finally opened.
The restaurant’s basement discotheque will open once again — on Dec. 13, the Thursday after the restaurant opening — all freshly lacquered in black with more gold leafing.
Campbell said they’re trying to start slow. The Tobacco Company will open for dinner daily beginning Dec. 10 but will be taking reservations on a limited basis.
“We want to be smart with the opening,” he said. He said about 60 percent of the staff is coming back, but still “we will have new people and we want to let them get up to speed.”
Campbell said The Tobacco Company has always prided itself on being able to accommodate a party as large as 300 in the restaurant, which has the capacity for nearly 600, with just two hours’ notice, but he knows they have to work to get back there.
“We don’t want people to come and say, ‘It’s really pretty, but it’s terrible,’ ” he said.
The restaurant menu of upscale American fare, created by longtime Tobacco Company chef David Mussi, is largely the same, but the restaurant is looking forward to launching the small-plate menu.
“It feels good [to reopen],” Campbell said. “I’m glad it looks the way it looks. I just hope people like it.”