Richmond has acquired a reputation in some circles as the kind of town to avoid, and Interstates 64 and 95 make it possible to buzz right by.
But things are changing in what was once considered a conservatively stodgy, dingy city. So if you enjoy cocktails, good food and entertainment in a fun-artsy environment, you'll be missing a treat if you fail to detour a few blocks off the highways.
Plans are well under way for a multimillion-dollar office and hotel complex along the James River--the James Center Project--and a massive business and hotel area on Broad Street, Richmond's deteriorating former main thoroughfare.
Meanwhile, there is Shockoe Slip besides the river and just off the interstates. Shockoe is the old warehouse section in Virginia's capitol. It boomed when the city was born, burned during the Civil War, and was rebuilt in the late 1800s, only to become dormant again early in this century.
Major efforts are being made to bring retail shops and offices into Shockoe to create a Georgetown-type section along a two-block exposed-brick section of East Carey Street.
The historically picturesque area has already flowered with a dozen artsy restaurants offering a variety of quality cuisine, and bistros and pubs which feature dancing and entertainment ranging from folk guitarists to rock and progressive jazz. For the first time in years one can bar hop, dine and be entertained--with a wide variety of choices--all within a two-block area in Richmond.
It is reminiscent of Old Town Alexandria and, in fact, entrepreneurs from Old Town have established four restaurants in old warehouses since the area began its rebirth in 1973, when Sam Miller's Seafood Exchange opened at the corner of 13th and East Carey streets. Miller's features fine food in a picturesque setting at street level, and has an intimate lounge and live entertainment in the basement.
About the same time as the appearance of Miller's, another restaurant, Gatsby's, was established on the opposite corner. Both were immediate successes and other investors quickly followed, the most recent being Il Porto and The Fish Market, opened by the owners of restaurants by the same name in Old Town Alexandria.
These last two offer good, inexpensive seafood and Italian cuisine and feature a lounge and dance floor upstairs with an excellent Top 40s band called ''Tight.'' The Fish Market, incidentally, pours one of the biggest mixed drinks for the price in Shockoe Slip--or almost any other area.
Prices, by the way, are one of the most pleasing aspects of the entire area's bubbling night life. It's hard to spend more than $13 for a dinner anywhere; most menus have top prices of $7 for meals and during happy hours drinks cost a buck in some places.
Miller's has been acquired by Cline Enterprises, which has business interests in Alexandria and has opened yet another establishment--Going Bananas--in Shockoe. Bananas features rock music and is popular with the city's college crowd.
By far the most expensive and popular restaurant in the area is The Tobacco Company, a block up from Miller's at 12th and East Carey. It was opened in 1977 at an estimated cost of $750,000, but several people now say the investment has grown to twice that amount. The Tobacco Company features three floors of intriguing greenery, antiques and memorabilia from around the country. Unfortunately, it also provides the most miserly drinks (better order three if you anticipate one good martini on the rocks) and disinterested hostesses.
Aside from those shortcomings, however, the restaurant is a visual delight and the food is excellent. A particularly pleasant surprise is that you can get a Caesar's salad for one with the standard price of the meal. The Tobacco Company's owners have acquired Gatsby's and the 1302 down the street, both of which currently are being remodeled.
Other restaurants along the two-block strip include Tortilla Flat, The Bus Stop and The Warehouse. Around the corner on 12th Street is Matt's Shockoe Pub, featuring light English fare, and the 12th Street Rag, a deli.
The area draws young and older professional people and hordes of college students. Dress ranges from jeans to formal, but it seems that dress doesn't matter, since you are greeted everywhere.
Roseberry, a former editor, is a production official with The Post.