Richmond is the capitol of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but is also becoming the darling of food and travel gurus. Frommer’s voted it a Top Destination in 2014, My Life.com ranked it #3 on Best Mid-Sized Cities in America for Food Lovers, and just two months ago, Colman Andrews, co-founder of Saveur magazine and The Daily Meal, declared Richmond the "next great American food city."
The best way to get to know the city is through your belly, and with about 900 or so independent restaurants, bistros, coffee shops, gastropubs, and craft beer restaurants to choose from, you can’t possibly sample them all — though it’s worth trying — and the journey is half the fun. As you stroll through the city, you’ll soon discover that Richmond’s landscape is dotted with unique neighborhoods like The Fan District, Church Hill, Shockoe Slip, Jackson Ward, and Carytown. Each neighborhood has its own personality with homespun eateries, cutting-edge restaurants, quirky boutiques, and colorfully decorated storefronts. Richmond has everything a great food city could want or need for casual grazing, including wineries, small craft breweries, and fantastic cocktails.
Here are five bites you simply must try:
The Grilled Octopus at Stella’s
Sometimes you walk into a restaurant and it just feels right. The décor is cool and casual, the ambience is inviting, the people are warm, and mouthwatering aromas greet you in the dining room. Stella’s delivers the goods. The menu offers rustic Greek food that old timers will love, along with new dishes that celebrate Greek food’s three main pillars: use only the freshest, highest quality ingredients, keep the recipes simple to focus on these ingredients, and make sure the food is comforting and tastes fantastic. Be sure to bring your appetite when you go, as this neighborhood spot feeds everyone like a doting Greek grandmother so portions are huge.
At Stella’s you have to order the grilled octopus. When it arrives, the two-foot long tentacle sits atop a bed of lettuce and one bite tells you this tasty cephalopod is cooked to perfection. It's meaty but avoids a rubbery texture, and is dressed with a zesty vinaigrette that lends just the right amount of acidity from the vinegar and a hint of herbaceous flavor from extra virgin olive oil.
The Sautéed Trout at The Roosevelt
Inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s tireless quest to end injustice, poverty, and hunger, The Roosevelt is more than a celebrated restaurant named for an even more celebrated woman. Chef and co-owner Lee Gregory’s creative Southern dishes are prepared with equal parts nostalgia and culinary inventiveness, and you don’t have to spend your entire paycheck to enjoy a great meal.
The Roosevelt’s other owner, Kendra Feather, is a visionary restaurateur with a knack for knowing just what diners want to eat and drink. As a result, the restaurant has won numerous accolades and awards. Just eight months after opening, Richmond’s Style Weekly named it 2012 Restaurant of the Year, and it didn’t take long for other publications to follow suit. Lee Gregory was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award in 2013 and 2014; Southern Living included The Roosevelt in their list of The 100 Best Restaurants in the South in 2014; Lee Gregory was named one of 30 Chefs to Watch by Plate magazine just a few month ago; and The Roosevelt was a sold-out headliner featured in Richmond’s food festival extravaganza, Fire, Flour & Fork 2014.
Lee Gregory’s menu features elegant but simply prepared dishes that let the locally sourced products shine, and one of the stars of the current menu is the sautéed trout with black eyed peas, rice, hot sauce butter, and chow chow. It’s a salute to the local fresh water fish and homey recipes that have kept Richmonders fortified for years. The trout is lightly pan cooked, flaky, and benefits from the earthiness of the peas. The chow chow is tart, savory, sweet, and spicy and is good enough to eat with a spoon.
The Pimento Cheese Pasture
Located right in the heart of downtown, Pasture, from the outside, resembles a minimalist West Coast restaurant that doesn’t immediately say, “down home cooking.” And this impression continues once you enter the dining room: the spare, mid-century décor screams Hollywood soundstage more than it does Southern café. However, the warm, old-fashioned greetings from the staff, and their laid-back attitudes immediately put diners at ease.
Chef and owner Jason Alley’s philosophy of small plates and shared dishes is perfect for small and large parties, and they source their cheese, ham, seafood, and produce from the Richmond area. For a special snack, order the pimento cheese with Ritz crackers and the paper-thin fried potato chips. The zing of pimento contrasted with the smooth creamy cheese and mayonnaise are sublime spread on a buttery Ritz and they are perfect with the chips. These have to be the thinnest, lightest ever made and are so potatoey it will be hard to enjoy store bought ever again.
The Matzoh Ball Soup Perly’s Delicatessen Restaurant
Perly’s chef Kevin Roberts, along with his wife Rachel, have given a 30-year-old Richmond institution a second chance. Rachel uses her family’s traditional Jewish recipes to keep most of the New York deli staples authentic, but Kevin has put his own twist on many of the usual suspects like knishes, cabbage rolls, and fish platters. Now, the matzoh ball soup; that’s all Rachel, and she really nailed it. The rich broth is loaded with chicken essence, fresh dill, diced carrots and celery, and big, moist chunks of white chicken meat. The secret to the chicken lies in roasting it and then adding to the broth later so it retains its flavor. Be sure to get a small amount of broth with each spoon of matzoh ball. Each light fluffy pillow melts in your mouth and is so tender any Bubbie would weep with pride at the taste. Bring your appetite because even a cup of the soup is enough for two hungry people.
The Steamed Bao Buns at The Daily Kitchen & Bar
Striking is the word that best describes the interior at The Daily Kitchen & Bar. Chartreuse green accents, austere, leafless dwarf trees, and a soft hum of conversation in a sunlight-filled dining room — it all makes you want to grab a seat and start your food journey. Vegans, and those on special diets like paleo and gluten-free, will be happy with the restaurant’s philosophy and food sources, but epicures will love the quality of the food.
Portions are large, but this just encourages everyone to order a variety of dishes from the menu in order to sample as many things as possible. Try the steamed bao buns stuffed with Autumn Olive Farms roast pork, pickled carrots, and cucumbers with hoisin barbecue sauce. They are a fun mix of Southern barbecue meets traditional Asian cuisine, and have deeply nuanced notes of smoke, brown sugar, vinegar, and dried peppers. Perfect for a later afternoon snack to tide you over until supper.
Summer Whitford is the Washington, D.C. City Guide Editor for The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @FoodandWineDiva.