RICHMOND, VA - I join the long lineup waiting to enter the Sub Rosa Bakery as the morning sun spotlights the colourful homes gathered in Richmond’s trendy Church Hill district.
Young professionals check their smartphones and tablets while they patiently wait to enter what’s become one of the city’s most talked about cafés. The smell of freshly baked bread and roasting coffee wafting from the entrance keeps everyone focused.
A short time later I’m standing in front of a tattooed cashier with pierced ears and nose ordering a foamy latte to go along with my still warm pain aux raisins and flakey buttery croissant.
I emerge back into the sunlight clutching my prized breakfast and sit down at a small sidewalk table outside Sub Rosa (http://www.subrosabakery.com/) where I meet Maureen Egan, a Richmond restaurant expert whose company, Real Richmond Food Tours introduces visitors to this city’s eclectic culinary scene.
Sub Rosa ranks highly on Egan’s “most favoured” list.
“Evrim Dogu (he’s the master baker and owner of Sub Rosa) is just one of the many talented chefs who have turned Richmond into a food destination,” Egan tells me.
A James Beard Award nominee, the bearded Dogu, who bakes his artisan breads in a wood-fired oven at the back of Sub Rosa, learned his craft from his baker father and began selling his products at local markets. His bread soon became the talk of the town and so Dogu opened Sub Rosa in a former corner store that looks out onto North 25th Street in Church Hill - it’s populated mostly by millenniums and students who attend Richmond’s renowned Virginia Commonwealth University.
Left: Hats off to Richmond. Middle: Evrim Dogu is the master baker and owner of Sub Rosa. Right: Happy hour at Home Sweet Home is very refreshing.
Dogu’s sour loaves are among his most popular items but his signature classic loaf - a levain bread using red wheat as its base - and polenta loaf - it’s made with native Virginia corn - are the breads his customers rave about most.
“Everything Evrim makes is special and that’s because he’s so gifted,” beams Egan.
The bearded baker says “Richmond is now what Seattle was 20 years ago - only it’s our restaurants, not coffee, that are drawing attention to Richmond.”
Dogu is just one of the many talented chefs who have transformed Richmond into the food capital of Virginia and have helped make the city a culinary destination with tourists from around the world. In fact, Evrim’s sister Evin is a James Beard nominee as well.
Egan, a passionate booster of Richmond’s culinary food scene, and her staff are only too eager to introduce visitors to some of the best restaurants and chefs outside of New York.
“Our tours also introduce people to Richmond’s wonderful neighbourhoods, like Church Hill,” says Egan.
Many of Richmond’s lovely neighbourhoods, like Church Hill, are going through a renaissance of sorts thanks to an influx of young professionals in recent years.
One of the restaurants that Egan rates highly is reflected in the windows of Sub Rosa - the Roosevelt (http://rooseveltrva.com/) across the street is regarded as one of the hottest rooms in Richmond right now. The Roosevelt’s chef, Lee Gregory, like many other area chefs, features southern fare with a twist, and chef’s pork crackling gnocchi with country ham, collards, boiled peanuts and potlikker jus earns high marks in newspaper reviews.
Like Dogu, Brittanny Anderson, chef and co-owner of Metzger Bar and Butchery (http://www.metzgerbarandbutchery.com/) on North 23rd Street, is another James Beard Award nominee and Egan rates her quaint restaurant as one that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Freshness and quality, along with the chefs incredible creativity, are the ingredients that help put Richmond’s restaurants on a par with America’s best. And the city’s location near Chesapeake Bay and the abundant rolling farmlands of northern Virginia guarantees patrons are getting top quality food.
Egan, who started her (2.5 hour) tours in 2010, says the diversity of Richmond’s restaurants is what surprises most visitors.
“We truly are global when it comes to food,” says Egan, who tells me some of Richmond’s best chefs, like Peter Chang, have relocated here from other countries.
“Peter is really an interesting story,” says Egan of the man who once served as executive chef at China’s Embassy in nearby Washington and even cooked for former Chinese president Hu Jintao.
“After leaving his job at the embassy, Peter moved here and opened his first restaurant (in a Richmond suburb) and recently opened his second (Peter Chang’s in Scott’s Addition). His food is amazing and he’s a wonderful person,” says Egan.
Above: Sub Rosa Bakery is reflected in another Richmond landmark restaurant, the Rosevelt.
Chang, another James Beard Award Nominee, wows diners with his Sichuan-inspired entrées and dim sum, all of which he mastered in his native Hubei Province.
After meeting with Egan, I’m inspired to visit some of Richmond’s
eclectic restaurants to get a real “taste” for Richmond.
First stop: Citizen, 1203 E Main St. (http://www.citizenrva.com/): Citizen is where café culture intersects with an American diner and the results are truly sensational. My fried chicken and jerk collards is served over Byrd Mill grits and finished with a smoked pimento tomato jam. Yum! The dish jolts my tastebuds awake and the only thing better than the meal is the ambience in this unassuming but truly remarkable little restaurant.
Next: Rapp Session, 318 Grace St. (https://www.rroysters.com/restaurants/rapp-session): Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton are legends in Virginia for helping revive the state’s oyster industry, which was wiped out thanks to pollution and over fishing. The Croxton family has a long history in the oyster industry and the cousins harvest their bountiful oyster crop on their farm in nearby Irvington. Rapp Session, located in the centre of Richmond, is a casual dining spot where the oysters are so fresh you get a burst of salty sea water with every slurp. Rapp Session is a great place to end your evening out - happy hour here starts at 11 p.m. Oysters come baked or au natural and the one thing that unites them is their freshness.
The Daily Kitchen: 2934 West Cary St. (https://thedailykitchenandbar.com/): Cary St. in fashionable Carytown is nicknamed the “Mile of Style” because of all the designer shops gathered there, but it’s also a hangout for foodies, many of whom make their way to this dollhouse-style restaurant. If you are vegan, this is your paradise, but Daily Kitchen also caters to the fried food lovers like myself - my fried Virginia oysters come with roasted corn salad, scallions, parmesan, lime, chipotle aioli. Yummy! Vegans don’t know that they’re missing.
Spoonbread Bistro: 2526 Floyd Ave. (http://spoonbreadbistro.com/): Tucked away on the handsome streets that run off Richmond’s world-renowned Virginia Commonwealth University in the city’s fashionable Fan neighbourhood, I come upon this lovely dining room where Chef Michael Hall, a mountain of a man with the “aw shucks” smile, combines Southern and French techniques to produce some mouth-watering dishes. The room’s Lobster pop tarts are now one of Hall’s signature dishes. Spoonbread Bistro has become the “it” restaurant of Richmond but because it’s a bit off the tourist route, many visitors may miss out on Hall’s incredible offerings. Gourmet food and an intimate dining experience is what this restaurant is all about.
Lemaire, The Jefferson Hotel: 101 West Franklin St. (http://www.lemairerestaurant.com/): Walking into this legendary restaurant in the historic Jefferson Hotel is like arriving at France’s Palace Versailles - only the food here is better. This landmark room is one of the most opulent in America and the only thing better than the decor is the food. Executive Chef Patrick Willis, a master chef who inherited his kitchen from Walter Bundy, a Richmond legend who left The Jefferson after two decades to start his own room, Shagbark (http://www.shagbarkrva.com/). While Chef Bundy may have put Lemaire on the culinary map, Willis is taking it in his own direction. There’s obviously lots of southern influences on the menu but it’s the freshness of the offerings that excite my tastebuds most. This is hometown cooking with a French flare.
The chefs of Richmond are certainly giving travellers food for thought when they plan their next vacation.
Real Richmond Food Tours offers many different outings in neighbourhoods like Church Hill, Carytown, the Museum District, Scott’s Addition, The Fan, Jackson Ward, Manchester and many others. Each Saturday, Real Richmond Food Tours offers public outings but they can also arrange private tours. For mire information, go to realrichmondVA.com / Richmond also celebrates its restaurant scene with a number of food festivals. For more information, go to https://www.visitrichmondva.com / For more on The Jefferson Hotel, go to www.jeffersonhotel.com. The Jefferson is located at 101 West Franklin St., 23220. / For Virginia tourism information, go to https://www.virginia.org / The best way to get to Richmond is through Washington’s Dulles Airport. Air Canada and several U.S. airlines offer direct daily flights to Dulles. Richmond is a two hour drive south of Washington.