I had wanted to eat at Enoteca Sogno since they opened four years ago, but just when I started to get curious about good wine with food, the news came out that Broad Street’s Italian bistro and wine bar was being forced to close. According to the Style Weekly article, the space was needed by the landlord, Justin French, and his new restaurant, The Republic, a couple doors down. The Republic was just getting set to open, but apparently it was urgent that they use the nearby existing restaurant, Enoteca Sogno, as a catering business, or a lunch location, or… well, the justification seems to change with the weather (maybe Justin French and The Republic feel they need that storefront to be empty?).
This struck me as curious, if not obviously underhanded. I wanted to know more. So, I poked my head in while across the street at Pleasants Hardware, to see what kind of restaurant had to be protected from another restaurant two doors down drawing diners and drinkers to midtown Broad Street. The menu seemed like standard bar fare, with a few flavor flourishes to peak your curiosity. Not very alluring to me, but it really looks to be more of a rock’n’roll bar than an epicurean destination (think Stronghill, with less interesting design). And then there’s their legal smoking section, clearly a focus of the business plan. Too bad, really. I’ve got nothing against smokiness in a restaurant, but I wouldn’t want to give up two restaurants to make way for one smoking section. You can read that to mean, yes, I hold The Republic responsible for the shady behavior of their business partner, Justin French, and for depriving diners of a beyond decent Italian restaurant in a part of town that could use the business.
As Enoteca’s owner says, his whole staff was put out of work on November 28th, out in the cold for the holidays. And for what? So hipsters can get drunk without the possibility of excellent plates of pasta being eaten nearby? What was the point in pulling Enoteca’s lease? (I mean, really!?) What kind of Grinch, steals Christmas out from under an established business in Downtown Richmond? Better yet, who specifically made the call to terminate Enoteca’s lease? Justin French? Some otther owners or investors in The Republic? I hear that a lot of experienced Richmond restaurant workers have been pouring their time/energy/money into The Republic endeavor, making green building decisions, and other progressive operating appoaches. I wonder how they feel, being complicit in this kind of anti-community strong-arming. It’s really a bad foot to get off on, if you ask me. I felt the same way when Strawberry Street Cafe (super-yucky), stole the property out from under the awesome wine shop convenience store, Prices. I didn’t go in for years. Prices was AWESOME!
Maybe the strings were being pulled by Rick Lyons, formerly a partner in Star-Lite and Banditos. I hear that he pulled his money from those places so he could cash in on the smoking lounge attraction that is to be The Republic. That’s some big money when you put Justin and Rick together with all of Richmond’s smokers. No wonder their website is prefigured with unwarranted hype: t-shirts, social media, over-designed bells and whistles, all presuming popularity. It just reeks of phoniness and bad-karma – the stuff that fuels full page ads and a lack of critical coverage in the local media. I’d be surprised if Star-Lite or Banditos customers would be concerned with any of this. A watering hole is a watering hole. And a watering hole with ashtrays? Beyond reproach.
But, wait. Wasn’t Cabo’s Corner Bistro in that same pot on the corner of Broad and Allison, years ago? That place was a real racket; pushing a posh environment and some of the worst food around at exorbitant prices. Ethics were out the window at Cabos, for sure. Have you all ever seen the movie, Poltergeist? A family moved into a place that was built on a burial ground and then they were tormented by spirits. So, you’ve got the curse of the old Cabo’s lingering in that space. And now the landlord is knocking over more cemetery headstones to make way for… The Republic. How long did Cabo’s last after Enoteca showed up offering goodness next door to their wannabe bistro grossness? The threat of a good example of food and drink done well, maybe?
I guess it goes without saying that nation-states generally come about through a bloody coup d’eta. It’s just business, they say. But, Broad Street is one sandbox that is big enough for all the kids to play in. If I’m ever going to support The Republic, I’d want to see them as part of a United Nations of Richmond Restaurants, rather than a unilateral George Bush cowboy type. That’s not my kind of neighborhood bar. But who needs thinkin, when there’s drinkin? While you’re smokin, don’t look at who the landlord is chokin.
Now that this post has dissolved into silly rhymes, let’s wrap up. This is about all I know on the situation, to date. I’m hoping by sharing this here, others will chime in to clarify the situation. I’m sure people on either side will have a lot to say. Some folks will say that Gary at Enoteca is just trying to get PR for a new location and that this is his payback for replicating Mama Zu’s recipes (his restaurant alma mater). I have no clue about that, but I’d rather see more Edo’s style food and fewer boring bars in Richmond.
When the Style piece came out, a few of us scratched our heads about it on Twitter. Since then, Enoteca’s owner spoke up with a comment letting the public know that he had been muscled out, and that Justin French was to blame for extinguishing one of the few brights spots on that section of Broad Street. Shortly thereafter angry comments piled up, “publicly lynching” Justin French (according to commenter Rusty S), and those were deleted by Style’s website moderators (UPDATE: Deveron Timberlake left a comment denying that this happened doesn’t know what Rusty S is talking about). That won’t happen here (assuming yall maintain some degree of civility). I just want the truth (did you order the code red, Justin!?) and I want the rest of Richmond to have it too.
Oh, and I also want to eat at Enoteca Sogno and drink a little wine there. That’d be a fine resolution as well. Please contribute time machines and/or mea culpas in the comments section.