Seeking mental and gastronomic stimulation, the wife and I recently pointed the car south towards the Capital for a long-weekend getaway. You know, where we could stroll the storied corridors of columned government buildings or wander a sprawling art museum. And when our stomachs rumbled, we could drift into any number of handsome neighborhoods rife with restaurants, cafes and craft-beer bars. Oh, and also rub shoulders with folks who root for airborne rodents.
Confused? Yes, we drove to D.C. But then we kept on going southward to Richmond, Va., where Thomas Jefferson himself designed the state capitol, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses a dizzyingly fine collection and the foodie scene is on fire. Oh, and the Richmond Flying Squirrels are the beloved minor league baseball team.
To cut to the chase: Don’t sleep on this no-longer-sleepy Southern town. The city of Richmond, home to 220,000 souls and growing, is a vibrant destination.
It wasn’t always so. I first visited RVA as a lad in the early ’70s while my oldest brother was studying art at Virginia Commonwealth University (dubbed “Viet Cong University” in those trippy, hippie days, when the whole school seemed to be housed in a haphazard collection of rowhouses).
We celebrated his graduation at the Jefferson Hotel, a creaky 19th-century beaux-arts pile where aged servers in threadbare uniforms brought finger bowls to the table. “Now, boys, just dip your fingers in,” Mom said, as we all looked askance at what we took to be the world’s thinnest soup.
Fast-forward and VCU now has twice as many students (30,000-plus) and a ballooning campus fostering synergetic bustle between downtown and the historic Fan District. The Jefferson, whose downward spiral saw it shuttered briefly in 1980s, has been lovingly restored to a sumptuous glory. (Even if you don’t stay there, pop in to see the gorgeous lobby and the Palm Court, where a Thomas Jefferson statue reposes beneath a Tiffany glass rotunda.)
A fading tobacco town whose soaring murder rate made headlines in the 1990s has quietly pulled a phoenix. During our initial strolls along the brick sidewalks,
I was struck by a sense of college-town prosperity. There’s a distinct Southerness, too—perhaps because most every house sports a porch. (Yeah, there’s a row of towering Confederate statuary, but we managed to largely avoid it.)
You can learn a lot about the life of a city by visiting its dead, which is why our first touristy outing was a guided tour of Hollywood Cemetery, which opened in 1849 on 139 undulating acres—making it 10 years younger and twice the size of our comparable Green Mount Cemetery. It was a cloudless fall day with blue jays calling noisily to each other from massive magnolias and sycamores. Our retired history-teacher guide said it was the second-most visited cemetery in the country (after Arlington) and the final resting place for two presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler (and for Confederate president Jefferson Davis).
The usual Victorian funereal art abounds there, as does a striking 90-foot-tall mortar-free stone pyramid serving as a monument to the 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried there. (These days, besotted frat boys like to sneak in at night and climb the thing.) As we gained ground, the city skyline came into view, along with the James River with its rocky rapids marking the fall line where its navigability ends (and why Richmond is where it is). I can think of worse places to spend eternity.
Also largely graveyard-still was the state capitol, parked proudly on a downtown hilltop like some gleaming Roman temple. Virginia’s annual legislative sessions are as short as 30 days, so it’s mostly just tourists going about the place. Jefferson was serving as a government minister in France when he and a French architect designed the Ionic-columned building in the 1780s.
On display is a detailed plaster model he sent across the Atlantic so there’d be no misunderstandings. But our guide told us that some forethinking (and brave) local builder altered the future president’s plans by moving offices from an unventilated attic space to a new raised basement—thereby sparing generations of paper-pushers from working in a sauna.
Away from downtown, the happening Carytown neighborhood is somewhat analogous to Hampden, only the retail/restaurant strip here is a good mile long. We signed up for a River City Food Tour of the ’hood that had us bouncing among seven different eateries, noshing at each one. Goatocado was right out of a Portlandia sketch: a catering company offering quinoa-based dishes in compostable containers at the rear of a bicycle shop.
While grazing is fun, finding that single, must-visit restaurant can be a challenge for out-of-towners. I ultimately sought collegial advice from the food and drinks editor at Richmond’s Style Weekly. Her suggestion—echoed by others I asked—was a 20-year-old place called Mamma Zu. So, is it some white-linen outfit channeling an Old South revival vibe replete with fingerbowls 2.0? Uh, no.
The Zu resides in a dingy, largely windowless building in sleepy corner of the Oregon Hill neighborhood. The floor is scuffed cement and the walls—heck, even the acoustic-tile ceiling—appear to have been hastily rolled in orange paint. But no matter. When diners enter, their eyes head straight to the large chalkboard, listing dozens and dozens of dishes on offer, most with an Italian bent.
While sipping the house red out of a juice glass, we ordered fried sugar toads—northern puffer fish, a Virginia delicacy—whose salty-crisp batter gave way to steaming, succulent flesh nibbled off either side of the tail. From the exotic to the everyday, our hearty penne pasta with meat sauce was sweetened by visible bits of carrot while I suspect red wine provided the counterpoint tang. (More quirkiness to note: They don’t have a website, they take reservations only for groups of six or more, and only cash or AmEx cards are accepted.)
When we weren’t sightseeing and eating, we were drinking. Beer mostly, but also cider. There are two-dozen craft breweries in and around Richmond. The surging scene is likely why Stone Brewing, California’s craft-brew juggernaut, recently chose the city for their first East Coast operation. Most of them have capacious tasting rooms and/or beer gardens and enjoy greater opening hours than breweries up this way. Burp.
But as it happened, our last tourist stop sobered us up in a hurry. The Chimborazo Medical Museum tells the moving tale of the Civil War’s largest hospital (offsetting some of the Confederate idolatry down this way). At peak, more than 100 buildings sprawled across a hilltop southeast of town named, inexplicably, after a dormant Ecuadorean volcano. Though not a stick of it remains, a diorama shows its scale and a film fleshes out the experiences of the 78,000 patients treated here. Yes, the collection contains bone saws and other wince-inducing tools, but we did learn that operations were almost always performed under anesthesia (ether or chloroform). Alas, antibiotics weren’t around yet, and though the hospital’s 10 percent mortality rate is considered admirable for the era, thousands perished from disease and infection.
We just couldn’t wind up our jovial three days on this note, so we hit the Center of the Universe brewery on the way out of town. And, hey, did you ever wonder what became of Orioles pitcher Chris Ray, the right-hander drafted into the system in ’03 who started (and later closed) for the Birds until 2009? He’s alive and well and making beer here with his brother, with whom he founded this brewery. Cans of their tasty Ray Ray’s Pale Ale even show Chris in an orange and black cap. He has a new hardball allegiance now, as they also make Chin Music Amber Lager—the official beer of Flying Squirrels. Now we gotta head back down in the spring to knock some of these back while watching gliding rodents round the bases.
Where to Stay
Thirteen presidents and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll have stayed at the Jefferson Hotel. While we’re usually not grand hotel people, this exception was just too exceptional to pass up. Suite-like rooms, superb service and a lobby to drool over.
Where to Breakfast
Open for lunch and dinner, Perly’s is a retro-hip Jewish deli with excellent bagels, whitefish and a Judaic themed cocktail list. Bloody Miriam, anyone? A Red Sea sour? For a baked-goods breakfast, head to Church Hill’s Sub Rosa Bakery where sweet and savory pastries are pulled from a wood-fired oven.
What to Drink
Craft beer is big in town, but so is cider. Buskey Cider in historic Scott’s Addition offers eight or more varieties infused with everything from lemongrass to jalapeño in a bustling tasting room filled with board games.
What to See
With its latest expansion completed just seven years ago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has really upped its game. The art deco and art nouveau rooms astound and it’s also home to the largest public collection of Fabergé objects outside Russia—including five eggs. The view and food in the top-floor restaurant are artful as well.