To some, food drives life of a city

By: Holly Prestidge | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: May 20, 2013

You can get a plain, old hamburger just about anywhere.

What you can’t get everywhere are works of meaty art featuring juicy, grass-fed beef topped with artisan cheeses and locally grown vegetables, all sandwiched between freshly made buns produced by the neighborhood bakery.

See the difference?

Many young professionals do, and it’s why they say a region’s food scene is an important factor when choosing a place to live and work. A thriving, dynamic food landscape that offers more than just chain-restaurant fare is a driving force behind the life of a city.

That’s one of the key findings of a recent survey initiated by Richmond’s Future, a nonprofit think tank that looks at issues within the Richmond region.

The YRVA study, conducted by Southeastern Institute of Research Inc., asked young professionals what attracts them to a particular area. While employment, affordable housing and safety topped the list for Richmond, so did a food scene that includes farm-to-table food sources, food trucks, award-winning chefs and more.

Richmond has all of those things.

From food trucks and producer-only farmers’ markets to gastropubs and wine bars, the Richmond region’s food scene has developed into something that’s beginning to rival what many larger cities have always had — a food culture that knows itself.

“All the restaurants have their own identity now,” said Dale Reitzer, award-winning chef and owner of Acacia mid-town. It’s a change from the past few decades in central Virginia, when new restaurants often mimicked one another both in taste and design.

Couple that with a growing emphasis on locally produced ingredients, and you have an inspired local dining and drinking culture.

And young professionals, Reitzer said, “want to be associated with the more dynamic food scene.”

They’re buying food from local farmers markets and becoming more educated about where their food comes from. Getting good food their money is important to them.

“They’re making educated decisions, doing their homework,” he added. “It’s not so much about going out clubbing (but rather) what hip new restaurant have they checked out lately.”

Arielle Goldman, 28, moved to the Fan District five years ago and is a designer with a Baltimore-based architectural firm. Food, she said, is the first thing she researches when visiting or moving to a new location.

She said Richmond’s food scene has become more diverse. Places like Mekong, Pho So 1 and Edo’s Squid top her list, as well as Heritage, Secco Wine Bar and Can Can.

She also frequents the South of the James farmers market and, when she’s not traveling for long periods, dabbles with Dominion Harvest CSA, a community supported agriculture program that offers seasonal goods like fresh produce in weekly or semimonthly packages.

“For a city this size, I think it has a lot of good options,” said Goldman, who’s from Baltimore but also lived in Charleston, S.C., which she said has some of the best cuisine in the South.

“I’m really happy to have options like Secco and (The Roosevelt) around,” she said.

So how does the region capture and then capitalize on that food enthusiasm?

Marketing Richmond as a foodie town means taking what many people already know about the city — its vast river activities or its rich history — and then adding a twist by throwing in a dining experience like no other.

“Visitors are always looking for that authentic experience,” said Erin Bagnell, public relations manager with Richmond Region Tourism.

“You can have a great meal in an old tobacco warehouse on an old cobblestone street,” she said, or have a meal from one of the most sought-after chefs in the world, Peter Chang, at his China Café in Short Pump.

“There’s just tremendous momentum in the food scene here,” Bagnell said, and it can be used to both attract visitors and raise the quality of life for folks who are already here.

She points to Real Richmond food tours and Richmond Brewery Tours, which sell out regularly. Restaurants are putting the names of farms on the menus to show customers where their food comes from.

National accolades about James Beard Foundation semifinalists like Reitzer, as well as nods to places like Black Sheep and Caliente on television shows on the Travel Channel, only cement Richmond’s place on the foodie map.

With all of these things, “it’s a great time to scream from the mountaintops about what a great food destination we are,” Bagnell said.

Christina Dick, 24, a community manager for The Martin Agency, moved to Richmond in 2006 from Gloucester and lives at Rockett’s Landing.

Dick said Richmond offers lots of food options and called Mamma Zu, Mom’s Siam, 525 at the Berry Burk and Tarrant’s Café some of her favorite places.

One thing she looks forward to is the twice-annual Richmond Restaurant Week, which rolls around again in October.

“I make sure to try a restaurant that I haven’t tried before,” she said, adding that during previous restaurant weeks, she’s gotten a taste of the Water Grill, Acacia and La Grotta.

Dick said she doesn’t choose restaurants for the drink or happy hour specials.

“I choose based on the food and the food specials,” she said, saying she relies often on word-of-mouth and social media sites for suggestions.

Kendra Feather, owner of The Roosevelt, Garnett’s Café and Ipanema Café, as well as co-owner of WPA Bakery, said it helps when today’s 20-somethings were raised around the local food movement.

“They were raised to take pictures of their food and share it with their friends on social media,” she said.

The “social” part is key, and it’s one area where she’s seen a change around Richmond.

“There’s the rise of the ‘neighborhood place,’ ” she said, and a sense of “home-team pride” when it comes to supporting local businesses.

“If the city’s going to grow and people are going to move here from other places, where are they going to make new friends (if) they didn’t go to college here?” she said. “They’re going to their neighborhood bar.”

Acacia’s Reitzer said he’s seeing more folks — including younger people — willing to venture out and enjoy a good meal long after happy hour is over.

Where they used to put drinks ahead of food, it’s now the other way around.

“Before, everyone packed up and closed at 9 (p.m.),” he said. Now consumers are enjoying late dinners and “that’s what big cities had that Richmond hadn’t had yet.”