Travel

Richmond’s Riches: Southern Food and Drink - and Gay Hospitality

by Matthew Wexler
Contributor
Thursday May 26, 2011
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At a time when many Americans are celebrating a reprieve in "the war on terror" and gleefully preparing to barbecue chicken as their observance of Memorial Day, it is safe to say that most are not commemorating the loss of more than 620,000 American lives and the eventual emancipation that happened on our own land and among our own people just a short 150 years ago. Then there’s Richmond.

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital of Richmond turned on itself as beleaguered officials and commoners alike collapsed under the pressure of orders to destroy food, supplies, tobacco and alcohol before the Union invasion. Looting and pillaging ensued, followed by rampant fires that left the city center in ruins. Richmond, like much of the country, would eventually rebuild and redefine its presence as part of the reunited American landscape.

Today, Richmond not only understands its past, but also embraces the threads that weave it into the fabric of our country’s history. From museums and live performance to what may be the most underrated culinary scene east of the Mississippi, Richmond is evolving as fast as the Class IV rapids that flow along the James River. The undertow of its dark past is never far away, but it is this character that imbues the city with an ethereal quality that captivates and challenges those who explore it.


A History Worth Revisiting

Richmond’s historical highlights offer a fresh look at some of the darkest moments of our nation’s past. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.

Anchored by the Tredegar Gun Foundry built in 1861, the complex consists of five historic buildings including the Richmond National Park Visitor Center. The permanent exhibit, In the Cause of Liberty, is a haunting reflection of the war told through narrative, artifacts and multimedia installations.

While The American Civil War Center offers a dynamic perspective of the war, the Hollywood Cemetery, opened in 1869 and designed by noted architect John Notman, is an opportunity to introspectively reflect on its impact. The winding paths and rolling hills encompass 135 acres and serve as the resting place for two United States Presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler, and the only Confederate States President, Jefferson Davis. A 90-foot granite pyramid commemorates the resting place of more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers.

The Virginia Historical Society is a striking neoclassical structure whose current exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, encompasses 3,500 square feet of gallery space dedicated to exploring the impact of the war from both a historical as well as contemporary perspective. The exhibit is free and runs until December 2011.


Arts & Entertainment

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Richmond’s arts and entertainment also contributes to the vibrant pulse of the city, whether it is a visit to one of the city’s longstanding cultural institutions or movie night at a National Historic landmark. Most notable are three anchors that position Richmond as a thriving arts center of the region.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was opened in 1936 during the height of the Depression as a bold expression of the importance of the arts by political and business leaders. A new addition opened this year featuring a 40-foot-high glass wall overlooking the Boulevard, sculpture garden and new gallery space, bringing the museum’s footprint to approximately 550,000 square feet. Upcoming exhibits include FabergĂ© Revealed (July 9, 2011 - September 2, 2011) featuring the largest collection of FabergĂ© in the United States, and Elvis at 21, a collection of forty dramatic photographs taken by Alfred Werthheimer in 1956 as Elvis teetered on the brink of stardom (December 24, 2011 - March 18, 2012).


Richmond CenterStage

Richmond CenterStage continues the legacy of live performance in the region that dates back more than 200 years. CenterStage Foundation (formally known as the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation) was established in 2001 to bring a new performing arts center to Richmond. The result is a multi-venue complex that includes the historic Carpenter Theatre as well as the intimate Gottwald Playhouse and funky and adaptable Rhythm Hall.

CenterStage’s new Executive Director and CEO, Richard Parison, Jr., is helping the organization find its sea legs during tough economic times and is committed to programming that is culturally diverse and resonates with local communities. "With purposeful and impactful programming," shares Parison, "we’re taking small steps in the hopes of achieving global results." In a bold move, he has secured legendary Broadway performer Bernadette Peters to headline CenterStage’s inaugural gala. This not-to-be-missed event is September 10, 2011. For ticket information, visit www.richmondcenterstage.com


The Byrd Theatre

The Byrd Theatre, located in the quaint shopping district of Carytown, was built in 1928 and still features the original vibratory stylings of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" every Saturday night.

The movie house was designed in the French Empire style and features hand painted murals inspired by Greek mythology. An architectural wonder for its time, the cantilevered balcony ensures a great view from every seat. The theatre has also installed state-of-the-art technology including a Dolby Digital sound system.

The Byrd shows first-run films, a host of independent features as well as the annual VCU French Film Festival, the largest French film festival in the United States.


Richmond’s Food Revolution

The Empress

Partners in both business and life, restaurateur Melissa Barlow and chef Carly Herring are the powerhouse couple behind The Empress, a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot offering "love-infused social cuisine."

Barlow manages the front of house and has created a unique cocktail menu featuring sherry, sake and plenty of bubbles. Chef Herring, a proud graduate of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (note to food snobs everywhere: you do not need to be a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America to be an amazing chef), offers an eclectic menu of seasonally inspired dishes that rely on local and organic products.

While the globally influenced menu may appear random to some, Herring’s unapologetic take on everything from buffalo lasagna to smoked catfish with braised kale showcases her passion for bold flavor and the influence of her partner’s "imaginary palette".

Designed on a dime, the couple reclaimed, restored and refurbished most of the interior and is committed to environmentally responsible business practices. Each month the restaurant gets a mini-makeover by showcasing local artists on the walls, turning the Empress into a revolving contemporary art gallery as well as one of Richmond’s up and coming foodie hang-outs.


Comfort

While The Empress may embrace food’s feminine side with edible flowers adorning its plates, Comfort is about stick-to-your-ribs deliciousness with a good-hearted (albeit foul-mouthed) chef at the helm. Jason Alley "grew up hillbilly - poor as f*ck" in Appalachia, Virginia. This working family mentality comes through loud and clear with down home classics like barbecued pulled pork, meatloaf, and classic sides such as cheddar cheese grits and braised greens.

Upon entering Comfort, diners immediately understand that Alley’s idea of the perfect day is to "listen to some Springstein, eat some pork shoulder and hang out." It’s not just the food that is comforting, but the whole vibe of the place. Of course, the selection of more than 70 whiskeys doesn’t hurt either. Alley is quick to chime in about quality versus quantity, "It’s not just bullshit, the cheaper ones are well thought-out, too."

Alley is ready to dive into his second Richmond outpost, Pasture, in partnership with restaurateur Ry Marchant of Six Burner, scheduled to open in early fall 2011. Word on the street is hush-hush as to what direction the menu may take, but with Alley at the helm it will no doubt be packed with flavor and full of personality.


Lemaire

For a taste of historic Richmond, there is none other than Lemaire, a fine-dining establishment nestled in the historic Jefferson Hotel. The Jefferson is steeped with history and a gorgeous example of Beaux Arts-style architecture. Remodeled in 2009, Lemaire manages to be simultaneously lush and contemporary, with chef Walter Bundy’s menu taking center stage.

One of Bundy’s goals when collaborating on the opening of Lemaire was a commitment to local farming, including the creation of an urban garden on the hotel’s property. Fresh herbs and produce abound just a few steps from the dining room, bringing a brightness to classic dishes such as blue crab cakes and Berkshire pork chops.


Gay Culture in Richmond

A Colorful History

Most people may not think of Richmond as the hotbed of gay activity, but the small LGBT community has been out and proud for decades. Guy Kinman, Jr. was at the forefront. In 1987, as the chair of the Richmond Virginia Gay Lesbian Alliance, he spearheaded "The Billboard Project," a public installation that spread the message that gay was okay.

As a testament to Kinman’s influence on gay culture in the area, The Gay Community Center of Richmond (GCCR), in collaboration with the Virginia Historical Society, has established the Guy Kinman Research Award to support work on such topics as LGBT studies, civil rights, and First Amendment issues.

At 93, Kinman is still a strong presence in Richmond’s LGBT community and has paved the way for a new generation to find its voice in a city that Gregg Johnson, GCCR’s Director of Marketing and Development, describes as "perhaps politically conservative but not close-minded."


Gay RVA

At the forefront of Richmond’s burgeoning gay scene is Gay RVA, a comprehensive resource for lgbt locals and tourists alike. Founded in 2009 by Kevin Clay, the organization has grown phenomenally since its inception and is forging full speed ahead as a model for how small to mid-size cities can establish an integrated lgbt presence through powerful online content as well as business alliances and community building events.

For the gay traveler, Gay RVA is the go-to resource for what’s happening in the bar scene and beyond. The site also links to the Richmond Business Alliance, an online directy of LGBT-friendly businesses in central Virginia.


Nightlife

Richmond’s gay nightlife scene is unique in that it possesses a ’come one, come all’ attitude that is inherently welcoming and extends beyond ethnicity or economic status. While parts of the city still appear to be struggling with social, ethnic and economic integration, the LGBT community is a melting pot where everyone feels welcome.

Virginia’s antiquated ABC (alcohol and beverage control) laws require a portion of income from bars and nightclubs to come from food sales, so while you may be craving a margarita, you’re just likely to find a taco sampler platter to go along with it.

Barcode, open since 2001, is a local hangout offering great music, weekly events and bar specials. Featuring an outdoor patio that is open year-round and free Wi-Fi, it’s a great lunch venue to map out your Richmond stay.

Godfreys, located just a short walk from Barcode, ramps up the energy with themed nights like College Hump Night and their famous Sunday Drag Brunch. Known for a running-time that rivals Gone with the Wind, Richmond’s hottest drag divas keep the mimosas flowing, which makes everything go down easier.

Nations is the place to be on a Saturday night, but without a website, it’s tricky to find out how the rest of the week shapes up. The nightclub has featured top-tier drag talent like Hedda Lettuce and the friendly bar staff is quick on the draw (although a bit too quick with their pours, as drinks tend to be on the weak side). The venue features a large dance floor, several bars, pool tables, and the requisite menu, which feels a bit misplaced when most patrons are more interested in the latest Lady Gaga dance mix than a burger and fries.


Where to Stay

The Jefferson Hotel

Perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in all of Richmond, it is estimated that the Jefferson Hotel cost nearly $10 million and took nearly 3 years to build, finally opening its doors in 1895. Original features have been restored over the years, including stained-glass windows, hand-carved fireplace mantels and ornate fixtures and sconces. The Jefferson offers a number of unique travel packages throughout the year and varied rooms and suites ranging from $240-$435 per night.


Maury Place

For more intimate accommodations, inn owners and longtime couple Mac Pence and Jeff Wells have created Maury Place, a gay-friendly bed & breakfast in the heart of the Museum District. The historic home, built in 1916, features four guest suites inspired by neo-classical architecture with modern accents. Farm-fresh breakfast is served on china from Pence and Wells’ families, as well as their Presidential collection, historical reproductions of the china of U.S. Presidents. Suites range from $199-$289 per night.


The Short List

More Picks for your Richmond Getaway

Get There
Direct flights on AirTran, Delta Air Lines or Continental

To Do
Real Richmond, presenting culinary and cultural walking tours through some of Richmond’s hottest neighborhoods.
Richmond Triangle Players, now in its 18th season, presenting works relevant to Richmond’s lgbt community.
Riverside Outfitters, offering outdoor adventures on the James River and beyond.

PrideFest Virginia, September 24, 2011

More Eats
Six Burner, featuring Chef Phillip Denny’s seasonally inspired menu and an inventive cocktail list.
Secco Wine Bar, a European-style eatery with a bespoke wine list offering more than 30 wines by the glass.
Sticky Rice, a Pan-Asian hotspot with attitude.
Julep’s, a Southern eatery located in the historic River District, the real gem is when the space converts to master bartender Bobby Kruger’s late-night speakeasy, The Mint. Entry is by invitation only, but here’s a tip: call the restaurant, ask for Bobby and mention "The Mint" - tell him EDGE sent you.


Matthew Wexler is EDGE's National Style and Travel Editor. More of his writing can be found at www.roodeloo.com. He is also a trained chef and currently writing a food memoir.

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