You could always count on Richmond being all things Confederate. After all, it didn’t just secede from the nation, it became the capital of the Confederacy. No trip to Virginia's capital has been complete without a drive down tree-shaded Monument Avenue. Striking bronze statues of Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Jefferson Davis and others line the center parkway leading downtown to the Confederate White House, the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate Memorial Chapel.
But, here's the thing. If you are one of the countless folks who happen to be flying past Richmond on I-95, you are missing out on an intriguing stopover. Over the past half dozen years the city has morphed into a robust destination, one of the cultural icons of the “New South." Century-old tobacco warehouses have been transformed into lofts and art studios and the formerly buttoned-up downtown now has life after dusk. Independent businesses are bustling with people. The historic Altria Theater has just undergone a $63 million renovation. There is a vigorous and varied food scene that is gaining national attention.
Moving beyond its fixation with the Civil War, a new generation has brought a younger vibe to this city that lies on the fall line of the James River in central Virginia. Richmond has emerged as a top-flight player on the Southern arts and culinary scene. Roots-based Southern restaurants and cafes are mixing down-home flavors with cuisine inspired by the state's varying coastal and farm regions.
One of Richmond's gems is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). Tucked just off Monument Avenue, it houses a permanent collection of 23,000 pieces that spans more than 5,000 years and is recognized as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the country. It houses Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, Paul Mellon’s British sporting art, and contemporary pieces of art-- Pollock, Rothko, deKooning, Warhol-- as well as renowned South Asian, Himalayan and African art.
Its current exhibition, "Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing," is the biggest international show to ever arrive at VMFA. The landmark display explores 500 years of Chinese history and culture and continues through Jan. 11.
A life-size portrait of Emperor Qianlong on horseback greets you at the entrance. Peer around the corner and you will find the emperor's military gear as shown in this portrait-- his sword, bow and arrow, helmet, and ceremonial armor decorated with five-clawed dragons in gold thread.
Symbols of good luck, dragons adorn almost everything in the Forbidden City. Beginning in very early time Chinese rulers adopted the dragon-- believed to be generous and wise-- as an imperial symbol. Emperors sat on dragon thrones, wore dragon robes, and sometimes even slept in dragon beds. According to the popular belief, if you are born in the year of dragon, you will be an intelligent and brave leader.
“Forbidden City” portrays the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties with a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries. Gallery design, dramatic images of the palace, architectural models and video create an immersive experience, as if passing through the Forbidden City during the height of its glory and splendor.
Forbidden City is part of a unique cultural exchange. In May 2016, VMFA will share its Fabergé collection with the Palace Museum in China. It will be the first U.S. museum to exhibit works from its permanent collection at the museum in Beijing. Upcoming VMFA exhibitions include "Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower," the first major American exhibition to consider French floral still life across the 19th century. It opens March 21, 2015.
Richmond has also attracted its share of Hollywood film crews. Stephen Spielberg filmed the movie "Lincoln" there in 2012. The bright-white Virginia State Capitol with its columned portico-- designed by Thomas Jefferson-- was the most recognizable site in the movie. Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Fields and other actors holed up at the iconic Jefferson Hotel during the filming. The undisputed grande dame of Richmond hotels, the Jefferson opened its doors in 1895.
The Jefferson Hotel was the dream of Maj. Lewis Ginter, a wealthy tobacco baron who was determined to create the finest hotel in the country. Today's Jefferson has lost none of its original luster. The Jefferson blends a number of architectural forms including the Italian Renaissance and Beaux Arts styles. The ornate lobby features a stunning stained-glass dome, marble floors, soaring columns and a grand staircase that is rumored to have been the inspiration for the staircase in "Gone With The Wind."
Adorned with original oil paintings and antiques, a life-sized Carrara marble sculpture of Jefferson, commissioned by Ginter, anchors the lobby. The alligators that once called the lobby’s small pool home are now memorialized in life size sculptures. The hotel’s Palm Court provides just the right atmosphere for an afternoon tea.
New American cuisine comes to life at the hotel's Lemaire restaurant. It is named for Etienne Lemaire, who served as maitre d’ to President Thomas Jefferson. Executive Chef Walter Bundy characterizes his approach to cookery as "upscale Southern cuisine with a French twist." A very apt description, as he utilizes the freshest possible ingredients that Richmond and the Tidewater region have to offer — Byrd Mills stone ground grits, Chesapeake Bay oysters, Summerfield Farms spring lamb, Kite's country ham — and stamps them with his own unique Gallic andinternational flair.
"Virginia is a terrific place for food,” says Bundy, an alumnus of The French Laundry. “We embrace what’s around us, and we have so much at our fingertips. We have a lot to offer. We just haven’t been discovered yet.”
Another popular spot is the Shockhoe Slip Historic District. The name "slip" refers to the canal boat slips nearby where goods were loaded and unloaded. The once-massive tobacco warehouses have been renovated into apartments, boutiques and eateries. With its hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, and natural wood shelves, Fountain Bookstore is the quintessential independent bookstore. Stop by Urban Farmhouse for breakfast items as well as sandwiches and salads, including winter beet salad with oranges, fennel and mint, and the Virginia ham cubano. Bistro Bobette is chef-owned with an intimate setting. It offers classic French fare such as crepes, tartines, mussels, steak frites and quiche.
Richmond is punctuated by a number of charming neighborhoods that are full of unique shops, galleries, museums and historical sites. Although Carytown is only one street long, visitors marvel at the variety of fun boutiques and eateries in this nine block district, home to the classic Bryd Theatre that spotlights second run movies. On Saturday nights the $1.99 film is preceded by a rousing sing-along accompanied by its mighty Wurlitzer organ.
The historic Altria Theater reopened its doors in early November after a two-and-a-half year, $63 million renovation that centered largely on restoring the 1930s aesthetics, while adding modern touches making it more comfortable for a 21st-century theatergoer. Altria’s new stage was christened by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, followed by a highly anticipated run of eight performances of the Tony Award-winning musical “The Book of Mormon.”
Richmond has largely preserved its historic neighborhoods, including the architecturally stunning Fan District. The name refers to the way in which certain streets radiate or fan westward from Monroe Park. The district, developed largely from 1890-1930, is unquestionably one of the city’s greatest cultural and architectural assets. Within its boundaries lies a rich and cohesive group of historic buildings in a variety of architectural styles such as Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Bungalow, American Foursquare, Tudor Revival, Spanish Colonial, and Art Deco.
The Fan is the location for one of Richmond's rising culinary stars, Heritage. Set in a contemporary brick walled space with a custom built bookcase as its handsome bar-back, it's a restaurant with a great neighborhood vibe. The breezy dining room offers a down to earth feel, yet the gourmet fare has earned a stream of accolades in two short years. Heritage is also a family affair spotlighting Chef Joe Sparatta, his wife and general manager Emilia, and her brother Mattias Hagglund, the talented mixologist.
Mattias' standout craft cocktails range from “light and refreshing to boozy.” We went for the “Return of the Macintosh” apple martini and the “Main Street Buck,” with ancient age bourbon, house brewed ginger beer and citrus.
With a continuously changing menu of less than 20 small, medium and large plates, New Jersey native Chef Sparatta's menu dishes up the best and brightest of local ingredients including watermelon radishes, white and yellow carrots, fresh burrata, and artisanal cheeses. With a nod to the old South, our friendly and spot-on server Michael (he's from Charleston) pointed us toward the tantalizing pork “fries” – house-butchered and house-made pork barbecue, deep fried (think mozzarella stick) side by side with house pickles and a perfectly tart/sweet bbq sauce. Don't miss it.
Our second dishes included a seasonal and local butternut squash soup with a surprising drizzle of toasted pumpkin seed oil complimented with red curry, apple and pumpkin seed. So comforting and tasty on a chilly evening. The seafood stars in the local Cobia bathed in a Thai curry and coconut milk broth with charred butternut, bok choy and purple radishes, while the hanger steak was served with a spicy sweet potato puree and greens. All were perfectly executed dishes.
Heritage demonstrates that some of the best restaurants can be found in unexpected places, yet another tip of the hat to Richmond, now a younger, brighter city on the rise.