One for the Road – The Tobacco Company Restaurant

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I recently found myself passing through Richmond, Virginia, the day after a family wedding. Locating a bar to write about was the last thing on my mind. It was a hot, humid Sunday afternoon; I was in a car with Melissa and her parents, Clarke and Linda, while her sister Emily and boyfriend Curtis were in another car; and we all had a long drive ahead of us. Plus, the wedding had had an open bar, so…suffice to say, I had no burning desire to seek out more alcohol the very next day.

I did, however, require some lunch, and after a few hours on the road, I was not alone in that. Nobody knew the area all that well, but Curtis mentioned there was a place nearby that had $2 burgers on Sundays. I was on board immediately, though I don’t think the two vegetarians in our crew fully appreciated the merits of this intersection between value and gluttony. Nor do I think the name of the place ­– the Tobacco Company – instilled a ton of confidence in anybody. I immediately pictured a smoke shop whose owner was enterprising enough to set up a grill out back. But Curtis spoke glowingly of the place, which he knew from having played there with his band. He described it as a refurbished historical building and assured us that it sold food and drink, not cigars and cigarettes, and that those who don’t love burgers would still find something to their liking.

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So at 2:45 p.m. we pulled into downtown Richmond, and sure enough, there was no sign of a shack selling cartons of smokes. Quite the opposite, in fact – housed in a classic-looking brick building, the Tobacco Company is a longtime resident of the Shockoe Slip neighborhood. An area rich in Southern history, Shockoe Slip has seen 40 years’ worth of growth and revitalization. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we found plenty to like – historical buildings, a plethora of modern bars and restaurants…everything except the sign on the door at the Tobacco Company, which said it didn’t open until 5:30 on Sundays.

You might say there was a little frustration at this point.

But Curtis poked his head in and emerged a few minutes later with good news – they actually open at 3 – followed by some better news – they were happy to let us in early for a cold drink. Pretty nice, given how hot it was outside.

I was so hungry at this point, I was ready to eat my shirt; picture- and note-taking was still not on the agenda. But I stepped inside and was floored ­– the beauty, enormity, and historical glamour of the Tobacco Company were positively striking. Dark hardwood floors, stained glass windows, candles set on black tables, and copper and brass fixtures recalled the high style of a day gone by.

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It was like walking into a larger-than-life montage of early 20th century Southern hospitality and upper crust distinction – the kind of stately restaurant you’d picture captains of industry dining at.

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As its name suggests, the Tobacco Company operates in a building that once served as a tobacco warehouse. There are four stories, including a basement-level club, and each has its own distinct atmosphere. On the main floor is a large, rectangular bar, manned by nattily attired bartenders and surrounded by about 16 old-fashioned barstools. Stained glass lamps hanging above the bar add a touch of old-school class.

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But the highlight of the first floor is the seating area in the massive atrium. With a ceiling that must be 50 or 60 feet high, and glass panels that let in natural light, you almost feel like you’re sitting outside. Tall potted trees, colorful flower arrangements, and green plants hanging throughout the atrium add to the “indoor al fresco” effect.

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Enclosing the atrium is a wall of exposed brick, reaching all the way up to the glass ceiling and decorated with vintage tobacco ads.

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Beyond the brick wall is a Victorian-era cocktail lounge, outfitted with a gas fireplace, more lush plant life, and funky leopard-print couches and chairs.

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We took a table in the middle of the first-floor seating area, directly beneath a huge, ornate chandelier. We were greeted by our waitress, Maria, who just charmed us to pieces with her dry humor and what I’d call a charismatic sense of irony. The kitchen wasn’t in full swing yet, but I happily got a beer while I waited. I love trying local beers whenever I’m traveling, and I went with a St. George’s Pilsner, brewed in Hampton, Virginia. Crisp, hoppy, and light, it was perfect for such a steaming hot day.

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Clarke wanted me to mention that he got a Bud Light, which I neglected to photograph. Please enjoy this stock photo of a Bud Light. His looked just like it.

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We sipped our beers and looked over the menu, which consisted mostly of traditional American fare – burgers and sandwiches, steaks and seafood, and more than a few Southern classics. I gave the options little more than a cursory glance; along with Curtis and Clarke, I was there for the burgers. Now despite my enthusiasm, I kept my expectations in check. As much as I appreciate a burger with a $2 price tag, I figured I’d be getting a quarter-inch patty on a day-old roll, or maybe a slider. But no! These were full-fledged, 8-ounce burgers, which you can customize to your heart’s content by choosing from a broad selection of toppings, ranging from your basic ketchup and mustard to horseradish slaw and roasted red pepper coulis.

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The burger itself is pretty straightforward, but I’d consider it merely a canvas for your most daring condiment artistry. I loaded mine up with Cajun horseradish, Swiss cheese, and of course, bacon, and thought it was delicious. Curtis and Clarke seemed pleased with their own creations.

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Our orders were split along gender lines – burgers for the guys, and an edamame hummus platter for the ladies. Spiced up with garlic, coriander, cumin, and lemon zest, it made for a refreshing summertime lunch (or so I heard; I was busy inhaling my burger).

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Maria, our waitress, passionately implored us to get a side of sweet potato waffle fries, which she swore were the best on the planet. Her plea was heartfelt and sincere, but unnecessary – I love sweet potato fries and probably would have gotten them with my burger anyway (though she may have persuaded Emily, Melissa, and Linda to split an order). Best ever? I can’t say. But they were crispy and satisfying, enhanced by a dash of cinnamon in the recipe.

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I followed the pilsner with a Legend Brown Ale. This excellent dark brew was smooth, malty, and full-bodied, and about as local as you can get – the Legend brewery is just a few streets away from the restaurant.

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As we rounded out our meal, Maria asked if we were interested in dessert; but she urged us to “search our souls” before answering, and teased that some Key lime pie and a butter cake had already been earmarked for us. We agreed to do a little soul searching as well as some digesting, and Curtis took the opportunity to show me the upper floors in the meantime.

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While the main level feels like an upscale but mostly casual barroom, the upper levels are almost exclusively devoted to dining. The second floor looks like where you’d take a date for a nicer dinner; white tablecloths and black furniture contribute to a dignified air.

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The black and white theme continues on the third floor, but some zebra-print chairs and another bar keep the mood from getting too serious.

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There are also a few tables tucked away in alcoves along the perimeter of the third floor, which is pretty smart – they allow for a more intimate dining experience, even on a crowded night.

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Daunted by the prospect of climbing two whole flights of stairs when your table’s ready? No worries – just use the vintage hydraulic elevator. Easily one of the coolest features of the Tobacco Company, riding in this classic caged elevator, with its manual door and brass parts, made me feel like I was in a fancy hotel back in the 1920s.

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After some sightseeing and soul searching, we decided to close out with some dessert. First up was a big, decadent piece of Key lime pie. The filling was rich and thick, almost the consistency of cheesecake, and it was served in a crust of pecan, gingersnap, graham cracker, and coconut, topped with fresh whipped cream and drizzled with raspberry sauce.

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Along with that, we got the Tobacco Company’s signature dessert – butter cake, with fresh whipped cream, strawberries, and chocolate sauce. I’m not sure what exactly constitutes a butter cake (and probably don’t want to), but it was sweet, surprisingly light, and bursting with flavor.

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As we enjoyed our desserts, Maria regaled us with the history of the building and its antique touches. She professed herself a “history nerd,” seeming almost apologetic about her enthusiasm. Of course, she was talking to a table full of nerds, so we were enthralled. A few elements of the original tobacco warehouse remain, but most of the accoutrements were bought at auctions around the country to complete the vintage look and feel.

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The beautiful exposed brick wall is part of the original masonry from the old warehouse, though the signs and mirrors that adorn it were purchased from antique dealers. The eye-catching chandelier once hung in the Federal Reserve Bank in Cincinnati.

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The hostess desk on the main floor had a previous life as a ticket booth in a train station.

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The old-school elevator, one of only three remaining in the country, was built for the Con Edison building in New York, though the elevator shaft is a holdover from the warehouse.

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I couldn’t possibly jot down everything Maria said; this seems like the kind of place that has a conversation piece in every corner. But the historical flair of the Tobacco Company is reflective of the area as a whole. As Maria told us more about the sights, museums, and history of Shockoe Slip, I found myself wishing we could stay longer to explore the neighborhood. It seemed like it had taken us all day to get there, but when it was time to go, I was sorry to leave.

Last Call, Y'all

I realize this is an unusual post. Ordinarily I’d report on a couple of cocktails and maybe a few more beers. But not everyone was imbibing, which would have left the heavy lifting to me (and getting hammered in front of the in-laws is never prudent).

Honestly, though, this is the kind of place I could just sit in for hours and admire the attention to detail. Someone went to painstaking lengths to create the look and feel of a Victorian-era restaurant, hearkening back to the days when hotels and restaurants were the embodiment of elegance and class, and the tobacco industry was Richmond’s lifeblood (you know, before we realized how horrible it was for us).

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It’s still a bar, though, and there’s plenty to enjoy, even if the décor doesn’t do it for you. The draft beer selection is small but well chosen, favoring local brews, and there’s a pretty respectable array of bottled options. I do wish I could have sampled the cocktails. Appropriately, the classics are well represented – Mai Tais, Sidecars, Mint Juleps, and so on. Drinking one of those amid such old-school surroundings would have been pretty cool. Perhaps another time.

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Prices don’t seem so bad, at least not for burgers. On Sundays from 3 to 9 p.m. they’re $2 with the purchase of a bar beverage. Many of the toppings are free, but some are an additional cost. Even with a few toppings, my burger came to a modest $6. The edamame hummus was $6.95. My beers were $6 each, which is standard for craft brews (in Boston, anyway). The desserts came with the generous compliments of the Tobacco Company staff.

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From what I hear, the place gets packed on weekend nights, when there’s live music on the main floor. As I mentioned, my friend Curtis plays there occasionally, and if you live in Virginia, you should check out his band, the Audio Affair (good band, aside from the drummer). Weekend nights are also when the downstairs “Tobacco Club” is open. I didn’t get a look at it when I was there, but I guess that’s just one more reason to return someday.

Address: 1201 East Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia

Website:http://www.thetobaccocompany.com/

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