They call it the Richmond Curse. Once under its spell, it's said, those who leave this Southern American city almost always return. Some claim the curse dates back to Native American chief Powahatan, who allegedly hexed the British colonists who first landed in Virginia in 1607. The city's current mayor, Levar Stoney, recently joked: "I've seen a lot of people leave … and a lot of them come back. So maybe there's some truth to it?"
Also dubbed the 'Richmond boomerang', the city's lure has led to a culinary renaissance, due in large part to talented chefs returning from plying their trade in far-flung cities. The hip kitchens of Richmond may be full of tattooed arms — this is, according to website TotalBeauty.com, the third most inked place in America — but they're also dotted with James Beard Foundation Award (for culinary excellence) nominees. They include Brittany Anderson, chef-co-owner of two of Richmond's buzziest restaurants: Metzger Bar & Butchery, and Brenner Pass. She describes her food as "rustic and sexy", and the tasting menu at Metzger is certainly both.
Brittany worked at New York's Blue Hill at Stone Barns before returning to Richmond. After a stint making artisan sausages for a company supplying restaurants, she co-founded Metzger, a restaurant that specialises in German-inspired nose-to-tail cooking, in 2014. "We have wonderful produce from our mountains and really amazing seafood," Brittany explains. "Our food scene is still relatively undiscovered by people outside Richmond. It's thriving and we have a great community — which you don't get in other towns. Chefs here are supportive of each other; we have each other's backs. It's brilliant."
As in many American cities, the Richmond 'scene' is not concentrated in the downtown area but in pockets spread out around its fringes. Metzger sits high up on Church Hill, named after St John's Church, where Founding Father Patrick Henry gave his rousing 'Give me liberty, or give me death!' speech, which helped to kick-start the American Revolutionary War in 1775. Almost a century later, Richmond was the Confederate capital during the American Civil War, a conflict this beautiful residential area managed to escape unscathed. "It didn't burn down in the Civil War, so there are lovely antebellum homes," Brittany tells me, adding: "And there are three James Beard-nominated places within two blocks of each other."
These are Metzger, Sub Rosa Bakery — run by brother and sister Evrim and Evin Dogu (their flaky cheese-and-kale croissant cooked in a wood-fired oven rocks my world) — and The Roosevelt, which opened in 2011 and, by all accounts, was at the vanguard of Richmond's dining revolution.
On the edge of Church Hill, a stone's throw from Libby Hill Park, with its views across the James River, is new kid on the block, Alewife. Chef-owner Lee Gregory (a three-time Beard nominee, formerly of The Roosevelt) named his new project after "a trashy fish that swims in Chesapeake Bay". A big, beardy, convivial guy, he unexpectedly joins me for dinner. His Calabash-style fried crab claws with kimchi mayo are a mix of Southern fried and Japanese — and they're amazing. Lee tells me his secret: Old Bay Seasoning (a spice mix popular in the South that includes celery salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, and paprika), powdered chicken dashi, anchovy dashi and togarashi (Japanese chilli flakes).
Born in South Carolina, Lee settled in Richmond, left, then — seemingly struck down by the curse — came back again. "There's lots happening in Richmond, and one thing pushes another along. It's cool to see each little stepping stone," he says. "It's the one place you can go where there are nationally renowned places clustered around a few blocks. That fascinates me."
On the west side of town is Scott's Addition, a former industrial area that's become the city's fastest-growing neighbourhood. It's here I meet Maureen Egan, author of Insiders' Guide to Richmond and co-owner of Real Richmond Food Tours. She believes the Richmond revolution began around 2010. "A lot of good chefs have come back and opened their own restaurants, and the quality has come up," she explains. "More people soak that up and want to do their own thing; there are very few chain restaurants in Richmond. It's so much more affordable than other cities and has neighbourhoods with very interesting architecture."
At a table in ZZQ, a newish barbecue joint that takes the regional influences of Virginia and shakes them up with Texas flavours and flame techniques, Maureen and I are devouring a tray of crunchy-but-unctuous burnt ends (the fattier 'point ends' of a smoked brisket) and tender beef, when pit-mistress Alex Graf — nicknamed Orange for her burnished hair — introduces herself. She and her partner, Chris Fultz, began making brisket at home using Mabel, their beloved first smoker, running supper clubs that proved so popular they soon needed a new venue.
"I could feed 150 people at my home but not 350, so we needed a bigger place," says Orange. "We're now going through 2,800lbs of brisket a week and 56 briskets every Saturday."
Also new in Scott's Addition is Longoven, a fine dining restaurant exalting the produce of the land and sea surrounding Richmond. Its origins can traced back to a night in New York, when the trio of chefs behind the venture — Patrick Phelan, his wife, Megan Fitzroy Phelan, and Andrew Manning — were all struck by the same thought: 'Let's go back to Richmond.' Beginning with sell-out pop-ups at Sub Rosa Bakery, they moved to their current bricks-and-mortar site — centred around an open kitchen — in 2018. "This city is so dining-centric," says Patrick. "We love it."
In Oregon Hill, I make the most eccentric stop on my Richmond food foray. The white, stuffed possum perched on the shoulder of a full-size replica of Michelangelo's David at the door of L'Opossum hints at the flea market-meets-high camp, bordello-chic mash-up within. Chef-owner David Shannon hasn't just run riot with the decor but with the menu too. Menu entries include: 'charred and chilled Chinese five-spice slices of venison: chasing dragons above the clouds of yuzu with lotus, hot mustard and a consensual spanking of furikake'. David's food plays around with his background in French cooking to create layered — often surprising — flavours. And diners are beating down the door to get in.
"This was a rough, seedy bar with cheap beer, and there were always fights," David says. "I didn't want a fancy French restaurant — I wanted something more casual. And I named it after the Virginia opossum, which is really just a rat of the woods."
Over in Carytown — a vibrant district with great vintage boutiques — I stop by new cocktail bar The Jasper, which promises 'full pours and honest prices'. Bartender-owner Mattias Hägglund mixes me a Quoit Club Punch, the official drink of a 19th-century Richmond social club, made from Jamaican rum, brandy, Rainwater Madeira, lemon and sugar. Next, I head down the road to Heritage, to try chef Joe Sparatta's gorgeous charcuterie — whipped lardo, coppa, tasso ham, lomo, smoked andouille sausage and homemade pickles. It's here I first hear of that curse, as I sit on a stool shooting the breeze with the bartender:
"You have to leave out of the gates of Hollywood Cemetery to break the curse," he tells me.
In the days since my return from Richmond, the city and its food have been haunting my dreams. Does the curse apply to visitors, I wonder?
Three great places to eat in Richmond
Named after a local fish, this restaurant is big on seafood and sustainability. Chef-owner Lee Gregory is a three-time James Beard nominee, and this recent opening is his first solo venture. Flounder crudo with cucumber, jalapeno and green tomato is fresh and sharp, while the whole roasted fish with broken rice and sweet potato curry is fantastic. There's a soft-serve machine too — try its ice cream in a sundae with bourbon caramel and popped sorghum. Three courses from £22 per person.
Before it even had a permanent base, Longoven was named as one of Bon Appétit magazine's Best New Restaurants in 2016, based purely on its pop-ups. Opened in autumn 2018, the menu is full of inventive dishes such as grilled maitake (aka the hen-of-the-woods mushroom) with black garlic, mushroom miso, egg and fried parsley. Three courses from around £30 per person.
Metzger Bar & Butchery
The cuisine here has a German influence (chef Brittany Anderson claims to cook the best schnitzel for miles around). It's also refined — the tasting menu on my visit included Hasselback potatoes with truffle puffs, cauliflower and egg-yolk jam, as well as hanger steak with black lentils, aubergine mustard and champagne grape salsa verde. The five-course tasting menu costs £31 per person with an optional wine pairing for another £23 per person.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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