By Melissa McCart
Sunday, December 27, 2009; F06
Walking into Belmont Butchery in Richmond, I'm struck by a very tall, very bald man with a bolo tie and a big white mustache sampling charcuterie behind the counter. Turns out he's Collins Huff, a heritage-breed farmer from Gryffon's Aerie farm in Albemarle County, who supplies the shop with Devon beef and Tamworth pigs.
"That's my finocchiona I learned how to make in sausage camp," says Chris Mattera, head of the charcuterie program, referring to the cured Tuscan pork salami Huff is munching. "Sausage camp" is what Mattera calls his time at a meat-curing seminar at Iowa State University and six weeks in Tuscany learning from a local butcher. While he was away for training, Tanya Cauthen, the owner of Belmont Butchery, ran the show with the gang of employees she refers to as "the boys."
Cauthen helps customers placing orders for Christmas as Mattera plies Huff with samples. Cauthen's charisma infuses her shop, and she works the room like a performer onstage. Her cleaver earrings allude to her irreverence; for one who plays with knives, she's not intimidating.
After I place my order for kielbasa, I root through the refrigerated section looking for pork broth to make bloody marys and lard for pie crust. In the meantime, Cauthen's sister arrives, as do many neighbors whom employees address by name. I'm surprised that someone's kids aren't working the register; apparently that happens on occasion. "But when I really need help, my chef friends come in for me," says Cauthen, including those from local dining favorites Balliceaux and Pomegranate. Today, seven people are behind the counter to deal with the crowd's orders, which include geese, standing rib roasts, Porterhouse steaks and pork tenderloin.
Though I'm a Northerner at heart, I find myself charmed by Richmond. The irony is that a few years ago I fleetingly considered moving there with my guy, who is originally from the Mississippi Delta. After a round of job interviews and a weekend of exploring, I was wary of establishing roots in a town that immortalizes the heroes of the Confederacy on a main drag. Coming from New York City, I thought Richmond was too small and Southern to call home. So Washington became the happy medium.
It took some Washington-based Richmond sherpas to show me the city's uniqueness. Now, I find myself a frequent traveler down the Interstate 95 corridor for day trips that include food shopping at locally owned specialty stores and lunch at beloved diners and dives.
Richmond is a vibrant little city in transition. Once maligned for a homicide rate that was among the highest in the nation, it is in the midst of a cultural rebirth. Lower crime rates and redevelopment plans have enticed retail businesses to invest in neighborhoods such as Carytown -- an art-deco-influenced shopping district populated with restaurants, funky shops, boutiques, coffeehouses and bars -- and the Fan district, named for the shape of the streets radiating between Belvidere Street and the Boulevard. Even once-blighted downtown areas are seeing signs of revival, as buildings sprout to accommodate employees at the Philip Morris headquarters, city workers, lawyers and students from Virginia Commonwealth University.
It's the students who harness much of the city's artsy spirit, as I saw one evening at 821 Cafe, a breakfast dive and after-hours spot near campus. One student in horizontal-stripe tights and a V-neck T-shirt had "Call me Ishmael" -- the first line of "Moby-Dick" -- tattooed across her chest, with the rest of the page scrolling down her torso. (I glimpsed "Ishmael" in the V and had to ask.) My friends and I remarked that, compared with the students, we were dressed like narcs. I wondered whether Herman Melville would appreciate the student's display of his masterpiece.
Ink is also a feature at Comfort, a downtown restaurant that takes its name seriously. Think a tattooed wait staff serving up mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, pulled pork, catfish and meatloaf sandwiches. Though locals gravitate to Comfort for festive, casual dinners, lunch is fun, provided you remember to order a big cup of caffeine to ward off the food coma afterward.
During my most recent visit, I opted for a more traditional take on the midday meal. Sally Bell's Kitchen is a Richmond lunch spot and bakery that has been an institution for the past 80 years. Housed in a lonesome brick house surrounded by sterile office complexes, high-rises and gas stations, Sally Bell's serves up modest charm. "Oh," said Sarah Redmond, a Richmond native now living in Dupont Circle. "Just thinking of Sally Bell's makes me feel Southern."
Inside, behind the bakery counters, women garbed in housedresses from yesteryear are swathed in aprons, slathering condiments on Sally Lunn rolls and wrapping deviled eggs in wax paper. Though I had been instructed to buy the cupcakes -- gumdrop-shaped cakes drizzled with flavored frostings -- I was more interested in the sandwich box lunch, a choice of Smithfield ham, sliced turkey, pimento spread or chicken salad.
"Which one should I get?" I asked the sweet woman behind the counter. Apparently I was violating some sort of rule, as people behind me sighed heavily while I fumbled over my order. The woman suggested chicken salad, which came in a bakery box tied with string and wrapped in checkered paper. The sandwich nestled next to an egg, a paper cup filled with potato salad dressed with a pickle, and a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting.
As I walked out to my car, an older man left his place in line to call out the door after me. "Don't forget to eat the potato salad!" he said. "It's the best part."
Another of my favorite spots is Kuba Kuba, a restaurant and bakery that offers a rich, decadent, almost sponge-cake version of vanilla tres leches cake that I dream about. Housed in a former grocery store, Kuba Kuba also sells a selection of tortillas and huevos, beans and rice, and Cubano sandwiches with ham or chorizo. If you're not willing to commit to a whole cake, it's fun to eat a slice at the counter with a cortadito, a Cuban espresso.
Farther west, I ventured over to Yellow Umbrella Fresh Seafood, a seafood market that my Richmond friends had promised I'd be impressed by. They were right, particularly when it comes to rockfish, Chesapeake oysters and crabs. This father-son-owned shop is to fish what Belmont Butchery is to meat.
I've also discovered Spoonfed, a month-old shop that replaced Stonewall Market, an old-fashioned corner store that carried farm-fresh eggs and milk in glass bottles. Owned by Richmond caterer Scott Ziegler, the new shop offers pickled and preserved goodies, tenderloins and hams, and tailgate food ready to go. "I can't keep preserved peaches and Richmond spice rubs in stock," Ziegler says. He's not surprised, because they're traditional tastes yet "reflect our town's expanding palate." Ziegler, who attended Le Cordon Bleu, opened the shop to cater to a new demographic in the city: busy young couples who want to entertain with less labor.
But whether it's desserts or cheese or charcuterie or farmers markets, when I find myself aimless or interested in what's new, I head to Belmont Butchery to ask Cauthen and her "boys" for suggestions. (That's where I recently learned about renegade farmers market locations and hours.) Honestly, it's a smart place to start: Once they learn your name and see your curiosity, you too, will find yourself wanting to eat and shop like a local, even though home is a day trip away.
McCart is a freelance writer and blogs at http://counterintelligenceblog.com.