Richmond’s Riches: Southern Food and Drink - and Gay Hospitality

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by Matthew Wexler
Richmond’s Food Revolution

The Empress

Partners in both business and life, restaurateur Melissa Barlow and chef Carly Herring are the powerhouse couple behind The Empress, a breakfast, lunch and dinner spot offering "love-infused social cuisine."

Barlow manages the front of house and has created a unique cocktail menu featuring sherry, sake and plenty of bubbles. Chef Herring, a proud graduate of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (note to food snobs everywhere: you do not need to be a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America to be an amazing chef), offers an eclectic menu of seasonally inspired dishes that rely on local and organic products.

While the globally influenced menu may appear random to some, Herring’s unapologetic take on everything from buffalo lasagna to smoked catfish with braised kale showcases her passion for bold flavor and the influence of her partner’s "imaginary palette".

Designed on a dime, the couple reclaimed, restored and refurbished most of the interior and is committed to environmentally responsible business practices. Each month the restaurant gets a mini-makeover by showcasing local artists on the walls, turning the Empress into a revolving contemporary art gallery as well as one of Richmond’s up and coming foodie hang-outs.


While The Empress may embrace food’s feminine side with edible flowers adorning its plates, Comfort is about stick-to-your-ribs deliciousness with a good-hearted (albeit foul-mouthed) chef at the helm. Jason Alley "grew up hillbilly - poor as f*ck" in Appalachia, Virginia. This working family mentality comes through loud and clear with down home classics like barbecued pulled pork, meatloaf, and classic sides such as cheddar cheese grits and braised greens.

Upon entering Comfort, diners immediately understand that Alley’s idea of the perfect day is to "listen to some Springstein, eat some pork shoulder and hang out." It’s not just the food that is comforting, but the whole vibe of the place. Of course, the selection of more than 70 whiskeys doesn’t hurt either. Alley is quick to chime in about quality versus quantity, "It’s not just bullshit, the cheaper ones are well thought-out, too."

Alley is ready to dive into his second Richmond outpost, Pasture, in partnership with restaurateur Ry Marchant of Six Burner, scheduled to open in early fall 2011. Word on the street is hush-hush as to what direction the menu may take, but with Alley at the helm it will no doubt be packed with flavor and full of personality.


For a taste of historic Richmond, there is none other than Lemaire, a fine-dining establishment nestled in the historic Jefferson Hotel. The Jefferson is steeped with history and a gorgeous example of Beaux Arts-style architecture. Remodeled in 2009, Lemaire manages to be simultaneously lush and contemporary, with chef Walter Bundy’s menu taking center stage.

One of Bundy’s goals when collaborating on the opening of Lemaire was a commitment to local farming, including the creation of an urban garden on the hotel’s property. Fresh herbs and produce abound just a few steps from the dining room, bringing a brightness to classic dishes such as blue crab cakes and Berkshire pork chops.


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