Virginia’s capital shines in the culinary spotlight
When dedicated traveling foodies research other cities, we’re not looking for museums and monuments—we comb the internet and shake down friends for the latest information on dining hot spots. That’s what led me to Richmond—along with a companion, Nycci Nellis, who co-hosts the weekly show Foodie & the Beast on Federal News Radio—for a dine-a-palooza, hitting more than 20 restaurants, bakeries and libation dispensaries in 2½ days to develop a list of places that epitomize why Richmond has blossomed into one of the best dining destinations in the country.
Follow my strategy: Input the places you’d like to try on a Google map, create efficient itineraries that avoid zigzagging, and leave the D.C. area at 10 a.m. to avoid I-95 rush hour anxiety, which gets you into Richmond just in time for—lunch!
Here is my list, categorized by mealtimes. (Many of the places listed for lunch or dinner are open for both meals.)
In Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood, restaurateur Anthony “A.J.” Brewer opened Brewers Waffles, a waffle and milkshake shop and art gallery, last July. You can build your own, ordering a traditional, vegan or cornbread waffle base, then adding sweet or savory toppings and sauces. If you don’t like making decisions, opt for one of the signature combinations, all named after local elementary schools. Try The Overby, a traditional waffle topped with scrambled eggs and bacon, plus your choice of cheese or hollandaise sauce. No phone scrolling necessary while waiting for your waffle to be made—pass the time perusing the gallery’s exhibits.
The original Perly’s Delicatessen Restaurant closed in 2013 after being a downtown Richmond institution for over half a century. It reopened at the same location under new ownership in 2014 with a revamped menu. The breakfast and brunch menu is available until 3 p.m. Look for matzo brei (a fried matzo and egg dish), corned beef hash and eggs, smoked fish, schmears and killer chocolate babka (but no pork products). We kvelled over Schnitzel Perlstein, an enormous crispy breaded veal cutlet topped with two sunny-side up eggs, smoked trout, capers and pickled red onions served with a side of potato salad.
Husband-and-wife owners Chris Fultz (he’s the pitmaster) and Alex Graf left careers in architecture and opened ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque, named after the band ZZ Top, in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood in 2018. People line up here for good reason—this barbecue is among the best barbecue you’ll find anywhere. Meats, sold by the pound in a cafeterialike line, are smoked in a 1,000-gallon smoker with white oak. Create your own combo by asking the slicers for some brisket, a sausage link, a pork rib, turkey breast and some pulled pork shoulder, then saying yes to the proffered pickle slices and pickled red onions, and getting a side of jalapeno mac ’n’ cheese and some red cabbage and pineapple slaw.
About 20 minutes south of downtown but worth the trip is The Original Ronnie’s Barbecue in Varina, where owner and pitmaster Ronnie Logan turns out a mean rack of pork ribs from the smoker he lovingly calls Big Red. Take note: The much-ballyhooed mac ’n’ cheese is only served here on Sundays.
Get to Mama J’s in Jackson Ward before it opens at 11 a.m., unless you like waiting in line. Chef and owner Velma Johnson left a 17-year career as a deputy sheriff in 1999 to become a caterer and then a restaurateur in 2009, when she opened Mama J’s with her son Lester. The fried chicken and fried catfish are so alluring we order both, plus sides of collard greens and candied yams. Last year, Mama J’s was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Service.
Husband-and-wife Everardo Fonseca and Karina Benavides opened their third restaurant, Abuelita’s, in Richmond’s Southside neighborhood in 2018. The menu is simple—you can choose from eight guisos, homestyle stews from their native Mexico that change daily. Sides include rice, black beans, refried beans and fresh corn tortillas. The grande platter (two guisos, black beans, rice and fresh corn tortillas) is a steal at $9.99. Recent guisos have included pork with cactus, menudo (tripe soup), and chicken with mushrooms.
Temple, in Richmond’s Fan District, is a jewel box of a Laotian restaurant that barely seats 30. The menu offers plenty of appetizers, curries and stir-fries, but we recommend going here to scratch the noodle soup itch. There are eight to choose from, generous enough to make a full meal. What wins my heart is the anise and cinnamon-infused duck bone broth with rice noodles, Chinese broccoli, Thai celery, green onions, garlic oil, roasted peanuts and a tender braised duck leg perched on top.
Richmonder Brittanny Anderson made a splash when she opened her alpine restaurant Metzger Bar & Butchery in Union Hill in 2014 and garnered a semifinalist nod for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation in 2017. Then lightning struck again—the foundation nominated Anderson in 2018 for Brenner Pass, the restaurant in Scott’s Addition that she’d opened a year earlier. The airy contemporary space brings a smile to my face, as does the bowl of littleneck clams topped with a tiny dice of mortadella, pickles and carrots in a rhapsodic Marsala and butter-enhanced clam broth.
Brother-and-sister Evrim and Evin Dogu were James Beard Foundation award semifinalists for Outstanding Baker in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Go to Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill and discover why. They stone-mill wheat, corn and rye in-house and bake in a wood-fired masonry oven. The croissants, pain aux raisins and seeded braided pastries are extraordinary, as are the lamb boreks (savory Turkish pies). Sip on lattes in the charming cafe and contemplate the breads you’ll take home. Polenta loaf, made with heirloom corn, is life-altering.
People are going crazy over Alewife, the seafood-focused restaurant that three-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef Mid-Atlantic nominee Lee Gregory opened in Church Hill in September 2018. Order the Siren’s Song, a platter of menu samplings that is $50 and enough to feed four people. Our catch included chicken soup with dumplings, beet salad with goat cheese and golden beets, bitter greens with hazelnuts and foie gras dressing, fried crab claws with Old Bay dip, pickled shrimp, and oysters on the half shell with mango vinaigrette.
Could Restaurant Adarra be any more darling? Chef Randall Doetzer and his wife, Lyne, opened this intimate 30-seat Jackson Ward restaurant early last year, focusing on Basque cooking and natural and biodynamic wines. Peruse local artist Ronnie Renmark’s paintings while nibbling on divine smoked walnuts, then devour a main course of tender roasted baby squid with breadcrumb stuffing and a ragout of white beans and greens.
Bon Appétit magazine named Longoven, a fine-dining restaurant in Scott’s Addition, the third-best new restaurant in the country last year. Helmed by three chefs—Andrew Manning, Patrick Phelan and Megan Fitzroy Phelan—the restaurant is ultrachic in dark blue and gray hues. The trio, working silently in a vast open kitchen, turns out artful dishes with flourishes of molecular gastronomy thrown in. Our favorite is a trompe l’oeil of roasted endive leaves that conceal fanned rosy slices of smoked duck breast layered with thinly sliced pickled Bosc pears and plums.
At Lehja, chef, owner and James Beard Foundation Best Chef Mid-Atlantic nominee Sunny Baweja has been serving superlative Indian food in a stylish contemporary setting in Short Pump Town Center since 2010. Let him choose your meal and let general manager Nitesh Arora pair the dishes with Indian wines—Sula Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc to complement Fisherman Shrimp with mint and green mango chutney or coconut curry scallops with masala dusted leeks, and Grover Vineyards Cabernet/Shiraz La Réserve to sip with pulled braised duck a la Pondicherry and Goan lamb vin d’alho.