Post-Thanksgiving, I’ve dined at three new spots in the downtown Arts District. Birdie’s as well as Sonora Rooftop & Sports Bar are on West Broad Street while Henley on Grace is a back at 314 E. Grace.
Takeaway? The eateries reflect the resiliency of century-old storefronts for conversion to contemporary use, and savvy entrepreneurism in redeveloping spaces in a neighborhood temporarily defaced by Black Lives Matter-related demonstrations.
The 26-seat Birdie’s, at 305 E. Broad St., could be the set for black and white scenes in “The French Dispatch,” director Wes Anderson’s current film. Amid mirrors, black glazed tile walls, and chandeliers with a ’70s vibe, I inhale an $18 lobster roll. Two pals have a microbrew and the Cannellini bean salad, a vegan option. From a bentwood chair on heart-of-pine floors, I peer through huge windows and the blur of a Broad Street Saturday night. The vibe illustrates why Richmond recently was named 20th hippest city in the world (by Movehub, an international relocation company). Our town was bested by first place Brighton & Hove (located on England’s southern coast) and Portland, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Lisbon ranking second through fifth respectively. Helsinki was ninth, Atlanta 14th, and Las Vegas eked out River City for 19th place.
The five data points of Movehub’s “Hipster Index” were the number of microbreweries, vegan restaurants, thrift stores, and tattoo studios per 100,000 residents and the rate of rent inflation, in 446 cities with populations exceeding 150,000.
Birdie’s, while not a vegan bistro, is hipster as the sole public amenity of Common House, a private social club that occupies the upper reaches of the four-story building and whose membership skews young. Patrons of the coffee and espresso bar, which shifts to a broader menu later in the day, benefit from the club’s well-trained, look-sharp waitstaff and reportedly excellent wine cellar. Other meal choices include fried pork chop and mushroom Philly sandwiches. Salads and small plates include a Lobster Cobb salad, rockfish crudo and smoked oyster wedge. Two vintage images of steam ships provide the only vivid color in the decor besides the restroom with its playfully amorous murals by the artist Menu.
Sonora Rooftop & Sports Bar is two blocks west at 11 W. Broad St. Rooftop? Why wait? My guest and I, on a drizzly evening, pass the long marble bar and a dozen TV screens to ascend the steps to the roof. Rain glistens and streams down the tent’s protective plastic flaps. Three couples sit at tables and chairs colored in vibrant hot green and egg yolk yellow. At this popular date spot, each suiter is locked in a votive stare. Our margaritas arrive in oversized plastic flutes but the consumption is diminished by plastic’s inability to sustain a frosty consistency. We soon repair to the too-brightly-lit first floor to eat. I enjoy the Sonora Quesadilla, four ample tortillas oozing barbecued beef, cheese and vegetables. My companion is pleased with spicy buffalo wings.
Sonora, bordering Arizona, is the northwestern most of Mexico’s 31 states. From various trips throughout the country, to me the well-executed and colorful graphics painted on the restaurant’s old natural brick walls most closely resemble Mayan imagery from the southern Yucatan region.
Over at Henley on Grace, 65 seats occupy the Art Deco-style building that formerly housed the Red Door restaurant. You won’t recognize the place. The interior walls are now classic Richmond exposed brick and the floors laid in reclaimed oak. The Sputnik-style aesthetic includes spiky overhead light fixtures and mid-century modern, Eames-inspired seating. Dinner recipes reflect what owner/proprietor, William Wright, calls “California-Asian with a Richmond twist.” He is often at the front welcoming diners. The name of the intimate restaurant wasn’t inspired by a Thames regatta but for the Henley Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., the city where Wright began his hospitality career.
One evening I enjoyed a squash bisque and an Asian salmon entree. At a weekend brunch, a friend and I discovered that the “Big Richmond Breakfast” is nothing short of decadent. Consider bacon, sausage patties, sausage biscuits, scrambled eggs, plus home fries and fresh fruit. The wine list, ranging from well-known to little known selections, offers many Virginia vintages.
Having experienced these new Arts District eateries, each in a repurposed historic building, my response is heightened to a late November announcement by Virginia Commonwealth University. It will construct a 181,000-square-foot arts and innovation academic building, including performance spaces, in the 500 block of West Broad at Belvidere Street. Renderings by the excellent Boston architectural firm of William Rawn Associates depict a glassified institutional behemoth.
But jammed into the Monroe Ward streetscape, with historic Carver and Jackson Ward nearby, will the new complex, despite (or due to) its modernist flash, create a gaping dead space on Broad? The neighborhood is currently human-scaled — including the architecturally striking Institute for Contemporary Art.
Perhaps the folks at VCU and their architect can take additional strolls through the Arts District and consider how the envisioned facility can best provide connective tissue to a unique district that for over a century and a half has proven how to reinvent itself.