A Boozy Guide to Richmond

“A beautiful city is Richmond, seated on the hills that overlook the James River. The dwellings have a pleasant appearance, often standing by themselves in the midst of gardens. In front of several, I saw large magnolias, their dark, glazed leaves glittering in the March sunshine.”

– William Cullen Bryant

Last week I spied a miraculous weather forecast that claimed temperatures were going to rise into the 60s. In January. Buoyed by this aberration, I resolved to get out of the DC area and try something new by heading to Richmond. I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve probably driven over or around Virginia’s stately capital 50-60 times on my way south, but not once did I think to stop.

Well, that blight on my travel resume was erased this week when I spent 48 hours in the heart of Richmond. It’s a beautiful but surprisingly quiet city, with some gorgeous business, historic, and riverside districts. The best way to tour Richmond–or any other city, for that matter–is on foot. To that end, I’d recommend jumping on the Richmond Liberty Trail, a 10k path that takes you to all the major landmarks, museums, and scenic areas including the wonderful Canal Path near the James River. My feet paid the price but I had a wonderful time learning the city and its rhythms.

In addition to the usual tourist routine, I had some real business to attend to: drink and eat everything. First, I strolled through the Jackson Ward neighborhood, a lovely area with eye-catching storefronts featuring kitschy ads from the 1950s, to The Rogue Gentleman. The Rogue came highly recommended from several DC folks who know their booze, so I couldn’t wait to give it a whirl. The praise was warranted, as the Rogue offers an expansive and whimsical cocktail list refined by real aficionados behind the bar. The space is small and warm, with a petite candlelit bar and about a dozen tables. It became clear that the folks there know and love their cocktails, with a ton of fun and off-the-wall ingredients littering the bar top. I chose two drinks, starting with “Binary Sunset” with Barr Hill gin, Laird’s Applejack, Campari, lemon, house grenadine, molasses, and absinthe. This was good, multi-layered, with a healthy aura of sweet lemon and gin up front.  Then I quaffed the “The Sweeter, the Bitter” with Catoctin Creek Rye, vanilla-infused Campari, Cointreau, lemon, Peychaud’s batters, and chili tincture. This was a favorite, with the sweetness of the citrus gisting perfectly with the bitter heat of campari and faint chili. Loved the vanilla-infused Campari, which I definitely want to make at home.

After the Gentlemen, I popped into Saison, a cozy neighborhood bar/restaurant. Dug the intimate and comfortable vibe of this place, just homey and genuine. Service at Saison was particularly amazing, with complicated drinks getting slapped down on the bar with speed and care (by a single bartender!). I tried the wildly complicated “Smoking’ Indo” with gin, Campari, lemon, passionfruit, cherry herring, demerara, and angostura bitters.  You know, a complicated cocktail like this had no business tasting so AMAZING – the gin, passionfruit, and cherry collaborate so well up front, making for a surprisingly even and pleasant taste with just the right level of sweetness. Masterpiece. Then I had the “Starman Stormy Sky” with bourbon, pineapple, lemon, demerera, allspice dram, tiki, and angostura bitters. Starman was ok although I thought the sensations were a little out of whack, with the pineapple just not clicking right with the other flavors. Not bad.

I then strolled over to Pasture, a very down home and casual restaurant full of younger folk and college kids. Pasture offers a really extensive and adventurous cocktail list – my only lament from my visit was I couldn’t stay all night! I ordered the “Deltaville” with Gordon’s gin, house made mango jam (!), lemon juice, and soda. Can’t recall the last time I had jam in a cocktail and it worked, lending a real powerful and rich citrus pop to this relaxing drink.

Next up was the must-see Maple and Pine in the vivid Quirk Hotel. I instantly fell in love with the aesthetic here: soaring ceilings, splendid light fixtures, and bright, modern furnishings, the space pulsates with luxury and taste. The dining area is situated smack dab in the middle of it, so any eating and drinking are done in great style. The bar staff was friendly and attentive. I tried the “Ms. Crenshaw” with aperol, elderflower, and prosecco was light, just the right kind of bitter, and easy. The perfect way to end a night on the town in old Richmond.

To start off my second night on the town, I mosied on down to Belle and James, a luxurious, high-end cocktail bar near the state capital building. Surrounded by all the finery and genteel politicos and lawyers, I felt like an old South dealmaker. The bar has all your standard fine dining and drinking tropes, with a sleek bar, prim wait staff, and dimmed lights. I tried the “James” with Old Forester Bourbon, rosemary syrup, lime, mile, salted caramel, and toasted rosemary. This was excellent, with the savory, herbal rosemary syrup offering up a special tinge that flows well with the heavy bourbon and lighter lime. Superb. I then headed north to the decidedly more plebeian Rappahanock, a rollicking seafood restaurant with a wrap-around oakey bar. The service here was really special, with my bartender juggling a good number of orders but always making time to check in on me. Here I tried “El Bolo” with Old Tom gin, manizalla sherry, Clements creole shrubs, orange bitters, and an orange twist. I was excited for the gin/orange combo but the sherry conspired against it, adding a very harsh, thick element that just didn’t click.

The last stop on my Richmond barnstorm was Comfort, a brass-tacks country bar and restaurant off of Broad Street. This up-tempo bar had a DIY grit to it, with hard-working kitchen and wait staff offering up some tried and true southern faire. The lengthy cocktail list features only Virginia spirits, a nice touch. I tried the “Riders on the Storm” with Catoctin Creek Watershed gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, spiced grapefruit and orange shrub, and a herbsaint rinse. This was an ok drink but the that gosh darn grapefruit struck again, adding stringency to the otherwise relaxed mix that I didn’t love.

So Richmond was a revelation, and I look forward to a return trip. If folks have any good spots I should get to on my next visit, feel free to reach out!

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