What exactly qualifies a restaurant as “the best” in Richmond? I’ve been over this topic before, but it seems that it’s being addressed again by the year-end round-ups in Richmond’s print publications. And they’re mostly coming up with the same answer: The best restaurants are those places most of us can’t afford. Or, when we do afford them, it’s a splurge - “aspirational spending” that lets us pretend that we’ve moved up in the socio-economic hierarchy.
As an avid reader of these lists of superlatives, I’m generally looking for some updated insights about what our city has to offer, a representation of our eclectic culture. Unfortunately, if it isn’t exactly the same restaurants on these lists, they tend to focus on the $20-40 entree eateries that attract the upper tax bracket diners. It’s like the Academy Awards of overpriced eating in every printed food feature. I don’t think Richmond wants restaurants in Oscar contention at every meal. A low-budget Sundance Festival jury winner often hits the spot, with leftovers for lunch the next day. Or better yet, a meta-ranking that includes input from everyday eaters as well as alleged experts. Tell us what Richmond is crazy about and what we might be missing if we’re not adventurous enough.
In a small city, it’s not surprising that you have to cater to the big fish in order to survive. However, I don’t think the masses of would-be readers are served by accolades ad nauseam for those places they won’t be visiting but a few times a year. When restaurant recommendations serve little if any utility to the mainstream, publishers risk irrelevance. Maybe it’s that those high-dollar restaurants are the ones that print publications are most interested in cultivating as advertisers.
In the case of Richmond, it seems our food reviewers are riding their high-stepping steeds at a full gallop into obsolescence. The RTD published a list of “best new restaurants” and I couldn’t find any on the list that wouldn’t go in my special occasion category. Even if the place was casual, they’re menu was so fashionable as to mandate the bourgeois prices of pretentious products. It’s food, people! Make the shit accessible, or it will rot.
How many restaurants closed in Richmond in 2009? Like, 30 or so? Places like Karsen’s clearly contorted themselves into a caricature of elite eating and deservedly died a quick death. And now the old-money playground, Verbena? How many places priced themselves into the stratosphere and came plummeting back down? I think the restaurant reviewers are partly to blame for cultivating a purely hypothetical market for a glut of extravagant gastronomy. There’s a recession on, in case anyone hadn’t noticed.
While Richmond is crying a tributary to the James for the fallen French first-class bistro, 1 North Belmont, I wanna go ahead and point some fingers. No, I’m not going to say that frou-frou and foie gras did Fritz in (tho it might have). I’ve had a frugal meal there on my birthday (still spent $100 w/o drinks) and of course I really dug it. But, there is a time and place for fine dining and/or fashionable food. From the looks of Richmond’s best of lists, we’re saturated with the stuff, and decent expensive eateries are going to drop off because we can’t support them all (tho our cheerleaders do try). We all know how delicious everyday food can be. It’s easy to forget if you’re reading food features right about now.
Of the list of Richmond magazine’s 25 best restaurants, I counted five that I could eat at without consulting my budget (her name is Karen). It sucks to see these lists and know that I won’t get to try many of the restaurants (and that some of them will close before I get the chance). Of those 20 steep places, some are terribly overhyped, delivering outrageously tiny portions, or the atmosphere just feels plain snobby. Others feature an odd special or prix fixe meal that might draw me in, but those items are exceptions to the business model of those restaurants. Even some of the cheaper places have climbing prices or too much demand to make eating there very feasible.
Why does food writing have to be the domain of gourmands and Iron Chef groupies? I might be either or both of those people from time to time, but that’s between meals of rice and beans and ramen creations, coupon cutting and pursuing promotional offers to the ends of the city proper. Maybe professional food reviewing skews your perspective since the tab is footed by the publication. When your boss asks where to take the office out for a meal, you aim high, right? Who can blame, em? Of course fancy food is something to crow about – good or bad. But I question Richmond food reviewers’ definition of “value” if that is indeed part of the criteria for our “best of” lists. (these statements about reviewers are not directed at any one person specifically. In fact, I like those I’ve met and worry about offending them. But, I still gotta speak up about a general trend and a net effect. )
With the rant tapering off now, I want to refer you all to a couple interesting features that can provide some alternative formats for Richmond restaurant recs:
- Richmond Good Life’s DINE section. It’s sliced and diced from many POVs.
- Genevelyn’s crystal ball for 2010 predicts some off the beaten path adventures. A little fantastical, but we can only hope.
- The Cheap Date Night feature at Richmond.com has some good tips, but needs updating (some long since closed places on there) and the special offers could be dug from a bit deeper. Nonetheless, this is a good road map for dining out.
- Use the tools at EatingRichmond.com. Food bloggers are far from perfect, but their collected experiences can help you. You can search all of the Richmond food blogs for a mention about anywhere you’re thinking of going. Eventually, we’ll have prominent restaurant blog entries collected for easier accesss. The Urban Spoon and Yelp social media sites listed under “inspiration” are also surprisingly good resources.
To address the inevitable question to result from this post “So, what is on YOUR “best of” list, Mr. Smartypants?” That’s hard to say, since my child has been a real obstacle to dining out or even going out for any length of time. That said, here are some of the places that have made my year of 2009 extra tasty:
- Asian Cafe and Bakery and/or Catina (both at Horsepan and Broad) for $3 bahn mi sandwiches and bubble tea.
- India Pastry House at Parham and Broad, especially for their lunch combo meals.
- Garnett’s for their array of sandwiches, soups, and desserts.
- Cafe Rustica for, like Garnett’s, doing big things for reasonable prices in a small space.
- Nate’s Taco Truck stole the show this year and pays significantly less rent than other eateries.
- Capriccio’s Pizza is serving slices of heaven for $1.85 each.
- Once Upon a Vine for making wine affordable and overwhelming me with choice.
- GlobeHopper for their exquisite coffee, snacks, wifi, and atmosphere.
- Moore Street Diner for the best egg’n'cheese on English muffin I’ve ever had.
- Habanero’s Mexican Grill on Quioccasin. Haven’t been in a while, but they’re darned good.
- Ruchee Express brings delicious Indian to the Fan and fresh naan back into my life.
- Momotaro in Carytown does a bangin lunch special and the rolls I’ve had otherwise, were also fantastic.
- La Sabrosita bakery on Midlo churns out Latin American pastries in dozens of varieties as well as savory finger foods. Tell Mario that I sent you. I don’t know what it will get you or me, but it just sounds cool to say.
- Chicken Fiesta specializes in a food I don’t eat (guess) even tho its’ super juicy and slow roasted over hot coals. For me, the yuca, tamale pie, and other sides are plenty to hold my interest.
This isn’t THE list of 2009. It’s an off the top of my head brainstorm. There’s so much more to celebrate in Richmond. Chime in with a comment to expand our concept of “the best.”
UPDATE on 1/31/10:
Be sure to read the comment thread. It’s made me really proud to play host to this discussion. I’ve been holding back a lot of my own comments, because the contributions here really speak for themselves, including the personal attacks. However, since seeing this post suggested a few times in the nomination process for the RVANews Internet Awards and Richmond Good Life’s inclusion of the people’s favorite restaurants (culled from these comments) in a democratic meta-ranking, I just really want to post some kind of epilogue to welcome the new eyeballs and to propose some take-aways that rose to the surface for me (maybe you’ll want to add your own).
First, I want to thank every paid food reviewer who came on here and spoke up. Considering the way I kinda went for their collective juggular, it’s understandable that there was some defensiveness. Hopefully, they heard the veritable outpouring here.
There is good cause for general cynicism toward food reviewers, including bloggers. We get so wrapped up in our mental pictures of perfect food and the restaurant experience, I think it’s easy to get detached from everyday eating and start to resemble the stereotype of a food snob. In that way, we only succeed at fulfilling expectations with our best-of lists, instead of conveying true insights and enlightening readers about excellence in a wider range of the culinary arts.
That said, I think there’s something bigger going on than food writers falling in line behind one another at the frou-frou food trough. Rather, Richmond seems to have a kind of bipolar behavior, flocking to the high-end and low-end (whether or not they deserve the success). Meanwhile, the accessible mid-range suffers from the catch-22 of lacking options and fanfare. It’s analogous to the American hallmark of extremes in wealth and poverty and seems to fit with the context of Richmond’s the dual realities of race/class divided population.
But, hey. We’re talking about food here. It’s something to celebrate and be thankful for. One day, we’ll have a true “people’s best restaurant list.” Until then, go with your gut and support those places that you want to see survive and thrive and represent Richmond.
PS: Is it too late for me to add Helen’s to my list of highlights form 2009? Their restaurant week food was off the hook and I hope for a date night there again some day.