Travel in America has rebounded so well in 2022 that it's nearing its pre-pandemic levels. People are ready to get out and have new experiences with their loved ones. Due to a tightening economy, international travel restrictions, and other world events, many Americans are choosing to travel domestically rather than globally. Now is the perfect time to rediscover the historic cities of America and get to know them in a new way. Richmond, Virginia played an integral role in making of this nation, but their history is still being written. Today, it's a hopping metropolis with a massive craft beer industry, an innovative restaurant scene, and the home of storied historical institutions.
In 2021, Breeze Airways began operating non-stop flights from New Orleans to several cities in the southeastern U.S. including Richmond, Virginia. I hopped on Breeze's non-stop flight to Richmond using their app to present my boarding, and the flight arrived in just under two hours, sooner than expected. Over the weekend, I would get to know Richmond's past, present, and a very bright future.
I stayed at The Quirk, a gorgeous boutique hotel on W. Broad Street. The bright, gorgeously decorated lobby/dining/lounging area featured soaring vaulted ceilings that allowed for a ton of natural light, pretty pink furniture, and a hospitable atmosphere that made it THE spot for hanging out after hours. There was even a wedding held here on Saturday. I had to ask about the beautiful building's history. It was originally built in 1916 and housed the J.B. Mosby & Co. Dry Goods Store. The Quirk is located in Jackson Ward which is listed as a National Historic Landmark for its history as a center of black commerce.
Even a quick look around this area will reveal several large murals painted on the sides of buildings. Many of the colorful murals are a part of the Mending Walls public art project which allows artists to paint murals highlighting social justice in order to promote healing for all. Richmond's eye-popping public art is as plentiful and colorful as flowers in a garden.
My first stop involved a drink at the brand-new Benchtop Brewing Tap Room in the Manchester District. Benchtop Brewing is originally from Norfolk, but after selling so much product in Richmond, the owner and former food scientist Eric Tennant thought it would be smart to open a dedicated tap room in town to deliver fresh draft beer to his fans. Bench Top's Richmond location is lined with a gorgeous Baltic birch architectural feature that gorgeously accents the Czech Lukr side pull tower. I sampled the Rice Cubed Foeder-aged koji rice pilsner and the Friar Storm Foeder-aged Mexican lager, but the Trial of Dmitri beet kvass gose had such a strong, earthy, and delicious beet flavor that it was my top choice. It was also flavored with sourdough rye bread and sea salt. Interestingly enough, this would be the first of many times I would encounter beets in Richmond's culinary scene.
I walked over to the Hatch Local Food Hall, a cafeteria-style dining hall and bar popular with young adults and a large cycling group that happened by during my dinner. The restaurant options included Fat Kid Sandwiches, Bully Burger, Odyssey Fish, and Sincero Tacos, but (being a southern chick) I had to have the chicken tenders and crinkle fries dripping with spicy honey sauce from Buttermilk And Honey. I complemented the tender, juicy chicken tenders with a perfectly-paired Hot Date cocktail from the house bar: bourbon mixed with honey, date syrup, habanero shrub cacao bitters, and a little bit of lemon juice and Angostura bitters.
It was a perfect night for signature cocktails at Q Rooftop of The Quirk which granted stellar views of the city and beyond. I had a Belle Isle Belly Dancer based with Belle Isle Lemon Lavender Moonshine and mixed with crème de violette, sage simple syrup, and lemon juice. The hazy lilac-colored cocktail was the same color as the sky as the sun slowly drifted under the horizon. What a beautiful way to end the night!
Friday began with a short walk down the tree-lined avenue to grab breakfast at "Richmond's Social Café" Urban Hang Suite. I opted for the Vegan Breakfast Sandwich consisting of vegan sausage, vegan cheese, and greens on a bagel which gave me great energy for the morning along with a jolt from the black coffee. In fact, every place I went over the weekend had at least one, but often several vegan options. I was highly impressed with the variety I found on menus which illustrated the welcoming nature of the city.
Our breakfast got me ready to learn a lot of Richmond's history from prehistoric times to right now. That history lesson began with a drive down the opulent Monument Avenue which was the scene of social justice demonstrations in 2020 due to the several Confederate statues that lined it. All of the monuments have since been removed from the avenue except for the Arthur Ashe Monument. Arthur Ashe is a native Richmonder and tennis champion who founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.
Walking into the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, I could smell the fresh paint on the walls. The privately-owned museum was founded in 1831 (then called the Virginia Historical Society), and it just finished undergoing a multi-year $30 million renovation and reimagining. In addition to updating the building itself, new exhibits have been added to illustrate the true historical diversity of the state.
A visit to VMHC begins with the Imagine Virginia orientational film that takes you back in time to experience the very beginning of the area through to the present day. I was taken aback when the floor of the theater glowed with flames to depict the burning of the city's infrastructure as the Confederates fled the incoming Union Army. The exhibition halls were filled with antiquities, some scaling 15 feet high. The Story of Virginia presented history starting 16,000 years ago with artifacts like pottery and arrowheads. The story of the woman popularly named Pocahontas was lovingly detailed here. She was born in the 1590s, and her name was Amonute (also called Matoaka). The daughter of the powerful chief of Tsenacommacah Chief Powhatan, she married the English colonizer John Rolfe.
In addition to welcoming guests to peruse the several exhibitions featuring 9 million artifacts, there are special events throughout the year like BrewHaHa beer festival on August 6th and Virginia Distilled spirits sampling on September 17th. VMHC also hosts naturalization ceremonies for new American citizens.
Just a few doors down, I walked over to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which had special exhibitions. From ultra modern commentary on society to incredibly ancient pieces, this rambling museum has nearly 50,000 pieces from several centuries and millennia. The deeper you traveled into it, the more you walked back into time. I could have spent hours perusing the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese exhibits, but I made time to see a little bit of everything like silver, the modern visual art, and the largest comprehensive collection of Faberge pieces in the world outside of Russia. The latest exhibit featured at VMFA is Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France, a look into paintings made by American ex-pat artists in France, and Tsherin Sherpa: Spirits, a solo exhibition of the works of Tibetan American contemporary artist Tsherin Sherpa. Coming up on October 8th and lasting into 2023, Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art will portray guitar-infused art from the 1800s to now. Good news for visitors: this is the only art museum in the country open every day of the year and it's free to all! Some special exhibitions may cost a fee.
Richmond's vast brewery scene is an incubator for great food concepts, and my lunch stop was birthed at Ardent Craft Ales before opening its full-fledged restaurant in the Scott's Addition neighborhood. ZZQ boasts a true taste of Texas deep in the heart of Virginia. Owners Chris Fultz Alex Graf have five massive smokers churning out the most tender and flavorful meats you've ever tasted. I tried a little taste of everything on the menu: juicy, smokey piles of brisket, pulled pork, turkey, and spare ribs! There was even a block of smoked cheddar to add to the intense flavors, but my favorite of the meats was the Habanero Fontina Sausage. I alternated topping the meats with generous squirts of the three sauces: Thin, Thick, and Sassy. I think that Thick went well with all of the tender, smokey meat. Not to be outdone, the sides and desserts were also wonderful and plentiful. Jalapeno Mac & Cheese, Blackstrap Collard Greens, Cowboy Beans, and so much more took over half of the table. I really enjoyed the beets that were steeped in sweet tea; I didn't even know that was something one could do to beets, and it made them so rich and refreshing. Whoopie Pie and Banana Pudding are Texas favorites for dessert, but I couldn't get enough of the downhome Peach Cobbler. If this all sounds mouth-watering to you, just wait until ZZQ and Ardent Craft Ales open Eazzy Burger. Much like ZZQ, Eazzy Burgers will have a focus on sustainability and locally-sourced ingredients and meat.
After lunch, I headed to the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia which tells the story of black people in Richmond and Virginia's history from the slave trade through Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, The Civil Rights Movement and now. Many of the exhibitions used touch-screens that allow people to click on various subjects to learn more about them. It was here that "Walking The Ward" tour legend Gary Flowers gave an amazing lecture on the history of Jackson Ward and how the district's history is a critical part of the Richmond's history and the nation's history.
Gary vividly explained that Richmond is "ground zero of America." Six out of the ten first presidents are from Virginia. Patrick Henry gave his speech including the line "Give me liberty or give me death!" at Richmond's St. John's Church in 1775. The "good, bad, and ugly" of a young nation started here. Pertaining to Jackson Ward, Gary told the tale of a remarkable woman named Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank in America and serve as its president, a newspaper publisher, and an icon for black commerce. Her indomitable spirit and the determination of other Jackson Ward residents made the district thrive for decades until other parties conspired to break it up. Despite protestations, a highway was built in the 1950s that bisected "Black Wall Street" which nearly ruined the area due to thousands of homes and businesses being demolished and streets cut in half. Despite the interstate's nearly cutting off Jackson Ward from other areas of town, people have been revitalizing the area for the last few decades. Gary Flowers gave me an entirely new perspective on the area and all of the people within it: why doing business and living in Jackson Ward was so extremely important to the continuing story of Richmond.
It was time for a quick afternoon break at The Quirk after all of that museum walking. The Quirk's guestrooms are really designed to help people unwind because the ceilings are very tall (well over ten feet tall) and the furniture was so big; you feel like a child again! The minifridge, the provided salt water taffy, and even the TV remote are pretty in pink. Watercolor paintings of fluffy pink clouds and houses line the walls, and a (you guessed it!) pink sound machine helps you drift away peacefully.
Fully rested, I headed to the Manchester neighborhood for a much-anticipated meal at Jubilee, a seasonal fare-forward restaurant owned by Chef Mike Lindsey and his wife Kimberly Love-Lindsey. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that this duo also owns Buttermilk and Honey that I enjoyed the previous night. Upon arrival, I was granted a glass of champagne as an opener because, the owners stated, they want to celebrate life. Chef Mike and Kimberly went on to detail how this is definitely a family business, and they want all of their guests to experience that. Chef Mike said that the oak leaf logo symbolizes an oak tree that stood in his grandfather's yard. His grandfather raised hogs, and Mike learned about farming, sustainability, and the importance of eating food straight from the farm.
The starters ranged from fresh greens to fruit of the ocean. The Gem Salad has an interesting addition of grana Padano, and the Watermelon + Heirloom Tomato Salad's Greenswell heirloom tomatoes burst in your mouth! The Tataki Style Steak Tartare was delightfully flavored with a little bit of ponzu sauce, cilantro, and apple. The Seared Scallops were incredible and perfectly cooked: a little bit of crunch on the outside and a plump, juicy inside. Beets were on the menu, and I had to have them for my entrée. The Pan Roasted BEET Steak was an excellent, earthy dish of thick beets cooked in bread crumbs served with sauteed greens and caulilini.
Even with a full stomach, dessert was necessary to round out the meal. I tried a taste of all three listed desserts: Blueberry Shortcake, Buttermilk Pie with strawberries on top, and even Peanut Butter Crackle Bar. This gorgeous, yet homey restaurant and high-end, yet comforting menu is a wonderful representation of the contemporary RVA culinary scene.
I had to go to GWARbar because I'm a fan of the shockrock band, and I had a tropical cocktail among the chains and bloody props. Even for the most conservative person, it's a welcoming spot with a great food and drink menu, and you can take some very interesting selfies. I decided to take my selfie among the colorful wall of concert posters which gave testament to the decades that GWAR has been terrorizing audiences across the globe.
Saturday began with a lovely breakfast from Q Barista on The Quirk's patio. My French Toast was stacked like a skyscraper, but it was so fluffy that it melted in my mouth. With latte running through my veins, I headed out to a place that I had been dreaming about. I was thrilled to finally go to the Poe Museum, a little compound of very old buildings cobbled together with bits and pieces of buildings that Poe lived and worked in. Winding and moving through the small brick buildings full of Edgar Allan Poe treasures like letters he wrote, his clothing, chairs he sat in for hours on end to work offered a true sense of what his daily life was like and what the lives of people in the early 1800s were like. Curator Chris Semtner was so very accommodating to my myriad questions. I thought I knew about Poe, but I learned so much more being among his earthly possessions. Particularly, seeing the modest jewelry he gave to the women he loved really put a human face to the horror author. I also learned more about his painful and strange death involving being beaten, drugged, and probably forced to vote (a fraudulent practice called cooping) until a concerned man spoke to him and called upon a local acquaintance to help him. Poe died in a stupor just a few days later.
The Poe Museum has more personal items belonging to the macabre author than any other institution, and it's always acquiring more thanks to fans who send in his belongings that they've acquired. This is an excellent year to visit The Poe Museum because it's celebrating its 100th Anniversary. You should stop by one of the monthly Unhappy Hours and see if the ghost of Edgar joins in on the fun.
Next on this voyage of knowledge was The Valentine Museum. Like many institutions in Richmond, The Valentine Museum is being reimagined by the staff who has been working tirelessly to reshape the stories they are presenting to include a broader picture of life in the city. In fact, they are in the process of clearing out their massive archive to rid the museum of artifacts that do not have much to do with their present dialogue or to return artifacts to organizations of people that they once belonged to.
The tour began with a peek into a building which is not currently public, but it was important to understand the recent history of the museum according to the museum's Director Bill Martin. The small secured building housed dozens of statues, most of which depict generals of the Confederate Army. This was Edward Valentine's studio where he created these statues and busts. After the social justice protests in 2020, many controversial statues were taken here "because they don't know what to do with them yet." Bill explained in detail that Mann S. Valentine II (Edward's brother) and his sons collected artifacts that interested them, including some unscrupulously dug out of Native American earthen mounds. Mann purchased the stately Wickham House and filled it with these artifacts in order to create The Valentine Museum. Edward built his studio outside of the Wickham House and served as The Valentine Museum's first president in from the museum's opening in 1898 to his death in 1930.
Traveling through the Valentine Museum today, you move through the beautiful Wickham House which portrays the life of the local aristocracy in the 1800s alongside the people that they enslaved or employed. For example, a thin mattress pad is seen laying at the foot of an opulent child's bed. This represents how some enslaved women were charged with sleeping on the floor in the children's rooms in order to be at their beck and call. The rest of the museum has been reorganized to include artifacts that highlight different eras in Richmond's history. Outside, you can see decade's old business signs that once illuminated the night. The "This Is Richmond, Virginia" exhibit has artifacts ranging from goods made by local companies in the last few centuries, the Woolworth's Counter that was the sight of sit-in protests, and a pen used to sign the Virginia Constitution of 1902.
The afternoon consisted of a trip to the Dominion Energy Riverrock Festival along the raging James River. What I really liked about this free festival was the focus on activities involving nature and exercise: kayaking the rapids, rock climbing, and running. I had never seen slackline before, and I was stunned watching people flip around on a tightrope high above a canal. Honestly, I spent most of my time watching the Subaru Ultimate Air Dogs diving competition which was incredibly addictive. After a couple of entertainment-packed hours, it was onto the next adventure.
The Hotel Greene was a huge surprise to me, and it was something that I went home and bragged about experiencing to my friends. Number one, it's not a hotel which is evident when you walk in and see the sign that says "This is not a hotel." Hotel Greene is a mini-golf game with a restaurant and bar. I had the nice and crispy Roasted Cremini Mushroom Chandelier Flatbread along with a Key to Belleville pretty purple gin cocktail, but I was experiencing too much excitement about the upcoming game to fully enjoy it. You are handed a golf club and ball and set out through a twisting mini golf course through a creepy, strange hotel from a bygone era. Not only are you tasked with making your shots through the strange obstacles, you are encouraged to explore all the nooks and crannies of the hotel. Peer through a hole in the wall and you may see a miniature dilapidated motel pool. Pick up a phone on the wall, and someone may start speaking to you. And I highly doubt anyone has ever made it in the last hole.
On a sunny, quiet Sunday morning, I traveled to the famed Hollywood Cemetery which was far more hilly and beautiful than I imagined. Hundred-year old tombstones line the rolling hills around the massive shady trees. Gigantic monuments sit silently next to rows of mausoleums. After some searching, I found GWAR's vocalist Dave Brockie's memorial stone which had gifts of liquor bottles and trinkets put upon it by his many fans. I was then enticed to have lunch at Poe's Café, a quaint local spot with homey dishes and good company. I stayed there until the nearby Stone Brewing tap room opened so that I could get a flight of their latest releases. The taproom lies across a footbridge over a canal; it's like finding a castle deep in the woods. My flight of four consisted of the Buenaveza Salt & Lime Lager, Smoking' with The Gnomies, and the Watermelon Lime Hard Seltzer (to try something lighter). But the best and most surprising brew had to be the Notorious PB&J Imperial Berliner Weisse which actually tasted like peanut butter and jelly. You may not be able to find this specialty release anymore though; it was a one-batch dispatch.
Richmond's story is America's story, and that story is still being written every day. Currently, Richmond is a diverse place teeming with young, hopeful, and industrious people insistent on opening new businesses, creating artworks, making unprecedented brews and dishes, and exploring and conquering the wilderness. And you're invited to be a part of it! Richmond has a lot coming up in 2022 and beyond. Food for thought: Richmond Taco Festival, September 10th, The Virginia PrideFest happens on September 24th, and Richmond Folk Festival October 7.