Southern Trendy: What’s In in Richmond
Here in the South, we don’t do trendy. Trendy is for New York hipsters and their ironic moustaches. In the South, mustaches are never ironic. They are purposeful. Gentlemanly, even. So when I’m naming the trendiest restaurants in Richmond, what I really mean is “Southern Trendy.” They aren’t filled with skinny folks wearing skullcaps or based on gimmicky food concepts. They are simply the (currently) popular spots in town that are getting a lot of good word of mouth. Some are brand new, some have been around a year or more, and some are old favorites that have risen to the top again.
If you have friends who like to talk about food (and I hope you do), then you already know that every Richmonder is talking about Casa del Barco, the new “upscale” Mexican joint that opened up somewhere along the Canal Walk. I say somewhere because it’s actually kind of hard to find. If we hadn’t been lazy and used the valet who kindly pointed us in the right direction, we never would have found it. But once we got there, it was pretty good. The mango-habanero guacamole was fantastic, actually. The chef seems to have an interesting philosophy of keeping the flavor of the meat simple and unadorned (not typically what you’d expect from Mexican food) and getting huge flavor from everything around it. We’ll see how that philosophy works out in the long run. I had the duck tacos, which were lusciously topped with a bright, crunchy slaw and pepitas, and the pollo mole tacos, which have been talked up by almost everyone but didn’t really do much for me. The fried ice cream in varying flavors (ours was carrot ginger) is delicious, if a little thickly coated. If Casa del Barco interests you, I would recommend trying it soon. I have a feeling once the buzz dies down, its location will eventually relegate the restaurant to the downtown happy hour crowd. And if the food starts going in that direction, then all is lost.
Next we have Pasture, a Frasier-style spinoff of Comfort. Just much less successful. Pasture offers “upscale” (there’s that word again) Southern tapas. Tapas meaning “small plates,” which is another trend infecting local restaurants lately (although I have to admit, I rather like it.) The food itself was fine. Nothing was out-and-out bad, yet there was also nothing particularly memorable. My table fawned over the pimento cheese, but I find it hard to get that excited over a cheese spread served with Ritz crackers. What really bothered me was the atmosphere. The extremely high ceilings of the space are a big hurdle to making the tables feel intimate, but they did themselves no favors with the bright lights, inorganic layout, and curiously chosen white and teal color palette on the walls. With a name like “Pasture” and the pedigree of Comfort, I expected something rustically warm and cozy.
Stella’s has zero problem with atmosphere. They’ve got atmosphere in spades. And they also have customers in spades. If you don’t have a reservation, don’t expect to get in without a long wait on any day of the week. This is the third iteration of Stella’s and from the looks of its packed tables, the locals aren’t willing to let this one slip away. They serve rustic Greek dishes with a modern flair in a warm, inviting, yet somewhat glamorous setting. I judge any Greek restaurant by its gyro (yes, I am that prosaic) and theirs truly delivers. Their tzatziki is classically familiar, yet spiced up and exciting. And their take on a Greek potato salad is delicious enough to make me pass up fries. If you want to try anything more adventurous than a gyro, they’ve got plenty of great options including a whole fish (whatever’s fresh), lamb shank and a comforting pastichio (a form of Greek lasagna).
Finally, on our tour of Southern Trendy Richmond, we have The Blue Goat. I didn’t want to like The Blue Goat. It’s a mishmash of different food trends that are starting to get worn out: small plates, locally sourced ingredients, nose-to-tail concept, a special chef’s table. And then to top it off they call themselves an “Urban Gastropub,” which makes the cynic in me pipe up its ragey little voice. But when I feed that cynic a bite of their housemade (not homemade) ravioli, it pipes right back down because their food is, on the whole, really good. It’s homey, rustic and comforting, yet adventurous. Their pork shoulder ragout is utterly mouthwatering. I appreciate that they are pushing our palates with items like rabbit pate and goat carpaccio, but can also be playful enough to serve pork rinds, a lowbrow Southern staple. The menu changes often, but the chef’s love for braised meats is clear (and delicious). Definitely give it a try. But skip the chef’s table.
These are just a few of the restaurants that have Richmonders talking right now. And as goes the trend around here, there will be a batch of fresh openings and new buzz soon. One thing in this town is clear: new restaurants seem to open with a bang, and close with a whimper less than a year later. Popularity on the Richmond food scene is fleeting. Taste it while you can.