Virginia Travel Guide – Exploring Richmond
They say Virginia is for lovers, but I’m not so sure I agree.
When I landed in Richmond on Wednesday morning, my first mission was to pick up my rental car. As I sat in my driver’s seat throne, that ‘ol familiar feeling began to swell. I felt safe and cozy in my own little kingdom. I was free to sing as loudly as I wanted, to talk freely to myself and be in control of wherever this little piece of metal went. I forgot how much I missed that.
I was feeling good. I knew this trip was going to be exciting. After adjusting my seat as far forward as possible, I could still barely see out of the car. Oh well, I thought. I can make it work.
Starting off in the wrong lane
My journey began with a trip to Lamplighter Roasting on Addison. The GPS said it was only a few minutes away. A little jerky at first, I quickly reacquainted myself to driving before the car was on the highway. I drove through traffic for just a couple minutes before starting to see signs for a toll road. Surely, I’d be able to bypass it since my exit was only a minute away. To my dismay, I indeed thought wrong. With $0 of cash to my name, I put on my most innocent, get-away-with-anything face as I approached the toll booth. I crossed my fingers and hoped the “full service” lane could accept credit cards. Inching to the window, my blood pressure began to rise. What was going to happen? Was I going to be able to get through the lane? Unfortunately, the lady running the booth was not amused at my mistake or my innocent wiles. With an evil side eye, she exited the booth. Where did she go? I was so confused and tempted to make a run for it. When she returned, she just uttered the word “go”.
“Thank you,” I said with a strange appreciative and confused tone.
“Don’t thank me. Thank the person behind you who paid for your toll,” tollbooth lady said.
I tried to wave frantically behind me as I rushed through the booth. Apparently, when toll lady disappeared she started asking people in the line behind me if any of them had the $0.70 to get through the toll. She brought full-service lane to a whole new level.
Shaking off that mini-fiasco, I praised the gods my destination was only a couple more minutes away. I parallel parked and switched my GPS to “avoid tolls” before making my way to coffee.
Hipster Haven – Lamplighter Roasting Company
Within my first few hours in Richmond, I learned about the revitalization of its art and music scene, which is marked by a surprising number of hipsters in an otherwise stereotypically snobby, confederate city.
With an increase in hipsters, comes an increase in local coffee shops, and according to Yelp, Lamplighter was the place to go. I hadn’t eaten anything that day, so when I arrived, I ordered a chicken salad sandwich and cold brew. The food and drink were average in my opinion. The cold brew had a nutty, full-bodied flavor but didn’t have any special notes, just your typical cold brew. The sandwich was flavorful but not memorable, yet again, a typical chicken salad sandwich.
The best part of Lamplighter Roasting was the people watching. I hadn’t seen that many tattoos and septum piercings since my days in Austin, and it felt nice to be around some interesting folks. Everyone was reading a book, smoking American Spirits, petting their pit bulls and drinking their single origin pour overs.
Ample outdoor seating exists, which was mainly spoken for when I arrived. Some indoor seating was available, so I pulled up a chair to the window seat and started observing. I heard plenty of millennial freelancers talk about their need to pursue their dreams and a career that gives back. I know our generation gets a bad wrap, but I appreciate the drive to never settle and to leave a positive mark on this world. Anyway, after about an hour, I decided to go explore Richmond a little more.
I’m not exaggerating when I say, everyone I met in Richmond told me if I did one thing, I needed to visit Belle Isle. With this resounding review, how could I not go? Plus I had a couple of hours to kill before I could check into my hotel. I typed “Belle Isle” into my GPS and followed the directions. However, after passing the side of the highway where my GPS told me to park, I decided to drive around until I found some evidence as to where I could park. In bikinis and trunks, crowds of college students made their way into the entrance of a park. I decided to pull over on a side road, park, and follow the crowd. They all looked like they were having a good time!
Before taking part in the adventure, I decided to change. In the backset of my car, I slipped into a baby doll floral sundress. Surely it would be much more forgiving of the 95-degree weather.
I traveled across a suspension bridge, a spiral staircase and down onto a narrow trail. Parallel with the trail were tributaries of the James River. I followed it, pausing to take pictures and watch people laugh and swim in the rapids. I continued walking forward, knowing that if I stayed on the path, surely I’d end up at Belle Isle. I walked across another bridge that opened up to a highly vegetated path, like I’d been heading down the rabbit hole of nature. The green around me was almost neon. I forgot how gray the city seems sometimes. I raced to the neon glow and followed its path onto the island.
It really was magical. To the right was a wonderland of wooded paths and mystery. To the left was the raging James River full of current and body and motion.
A part of me wanted to jump and be whisked away into the current. Another part of me felt nervous and cautious as I tip-toed around the edges of the path. This island is literally in the middle of the James River and is surrounded by downtown Richmond. However, when you are in the heart of it, you get lost in nature and forget you’re in the middle of a city.
I ensured I stayed on the same forward trajectory during my entire walk so it would be easy for me to return back to start. After walking around for almost two hours, I decided it was time for me to return back to my car and start to prepare for the next day of presentations. I re-walked the path, observing new currents, leaves, and trails.
It wasn’t until I made it to the car that I realized my entire body was pink and throbbing from dehydration. I stopped at a convenient store and picked up some soda before making my way to the hotel. As I continued driving, I was overcome with thanksgiving for a job that gives the opportunity and flexibility to travel and adventure.
And then it hit
It’s been a while since I’ve experienced the kind of heat and humidity Richmond presented that day. Further, the tap water in Richmond is disgusting, so I couldn’t just pour myself a glass and keep going. As I sat down to work in the hotel, I could feel that all-too-familiar pain creep up my neck and into the veins above my right eye. I ignored it for too long as I completed my work, but it continued to ache more and more with every second. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and took some medicine. By that time, I could barely hold up my head. Let it be known that I hate taking naps, but I couldn’t think of anything else I could do to get some relief from the pain, so I tried to fall asleep for an afternoon nap. After a couple of hours, I experienced a little bit of relief and decided to take a hot shower to ease any further tension in my neck.
The shower really helped, so I rallied and decided to take myself out to a nice dinner.
Southbound is an American-based restaurant in south Richmond. It was started by Chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt, Chef Joe Sparatta of Heritage and a local farmer, Matt Gottwald. The restaurant prides itself on featuring locally sourced ingredients with an elevated southern twist.
I was pleasantly surprised with the variety on their menu and found it difficult to choose an appetizer.
I was torn between a mushroom ricotta dish and the arugula salad. I opted for the salad because I felt like a plate of green after a day of green just made sense. The arugula was fresh; the tangerines and grapefruit added textured variety; and peanuts offered a salty crunch. An in-house ginger dressing covered the top. Although it had good flavor, it lacked that ginger-kick. If the ginger had a stronger presence it
would have brought the dish to the next level. Instead, it made the salad slightly too sweet. That being said, it still tasted amazing, and I finished every single bite.
I chose a beautiful roasted half chicken as my main course. The skin was perfectly crispy and the meat was still juicy. The chicken rested on top of a bed of couscous, roasted vegetables and a house-made tzatziki sauce.
The entree was full of flavor, and my only suggestion would be to roast the vegetables a little more. If they had been charred, it would have added more depth to the flavor. Otherwise, a very satisfying dish.
A glass of rosé accompanied the dish, and I opted for no dessert. Unfortunately, about half-way through dinner, my migraine returned with a vengeance, and all I wanted to do was finish my dinner and go rest my head in the hotel bed.
The Next Days
After a night of little sleep due to my inability to knock my migraine, I awoke early to prepare for my day of client meetings. I spent all day with the fine folks of Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia, working hard to build infrastructures so they can more effectively serve their clients and use data to make informed decisions in the future. (If you’re a nonprofit and need help with these services, click here). We opted for working lunches both days I was there, and we ate Panera for each one. I ate plenty of bagels, fruit, sandwiches, salads and cookies.
BBQ and Beer
For my final evening in Richmond, I wanted to partake in its local brewery scene. Unfortunately, my hotel was over 15 miles from downtown, and I was starving. Once again, Yelp to the rescue. It located a local brewery within 5 minutes from my hotel.
As I pulled up to the south side location of Extra Billy’s BBQ, I saw wood logs piled in the back for smoking and a number of overweight older folks walking toward the door. I knew I’d landed in the right place. From the antique meat cleavers lining the windows around the kitchen to the vintage typewriters and radios that rested on shelves for decoration, this place was an odd combination of a David Lynch diner and an old Vegas casino. The 1970s floral patterns on the carpet swam around as I sat in my wood-paneled booth.
The waitress, a former Brooklyn resident, had recently returned home to Richmond with too much eyeliner and a sad story. She was hardly present and rarely cracked a smile. The crowd was generally older, save for a few grandchildren. The person closest to my age was the 14 year old boy eating brisket with his grandfather. I loved its atmosphere. It made me think of all the little BBQ joints in Owensboro, Kentucky, my hometown.
When the waitress FINALLY rolled around to my table, I jumped at the opportunity to place my order. I chose the “Citra Ass Down” IPA as my beverage and a pulled pork plate with macaroni-and-cheese and fries as the main course, which seemed like the obvious choice at any southern barbecue spot.
I was so excited to fill my belly with southern comfort food. They don’t BBQ anything well in Boston besides their beans. However, the food was disappointing. The BBQ itself was tasty and the sauce was tangy and more vinegar based, which I like. However, the pork was dry and didn’t have any smoky flavor like I was expecting. The macaroni-and-cheese was the most disappointing. The elbow noodles were falling apart, the cheese was dry and detached from the pasta, and the seasoning was absent. I had to douse it in pepper and salt to make it edible. The fries were the best part of the meal, though. They were covered in ample salt and a sugary spice rub.
Despite the lack of flavor in the food, the beer was affordable and full bodied. The citra hops were bright and present, providing that little bit of bitter tingle on the back of your tongue. If I ever visit again, my plan would be to sit at the bar, grab a beer and eat a plate of fries. Healthy, I know.
As I headed to the airport on my last afternoon in Richmond, I reminisced about my time. The people were generally friendly, the nature was outstanding and I consumed some pretty tasty food. My sentiment was beginning to transform. Maybe Richmond is for Lovers after all. Maybe I’d started to fall for the charm of this Southern gem. I sipped on my Sam Adams at the airport, anticipating my return to Boston and contemplating bringing my husband back to Richmond for a long weekend sometime.
I returned back to my gate, ready to board, when I looked at the boarding time. I rubbed my eyes again, TWO HOURS later??? How could this be? This delay was going to cause me to miss my flight at Laguardia back to Boston. By this time, I threw away my rose-colored Richmond glasses. Although, I did eventually make it home that night several hours later than expected, I still haven’t changed my mind about Richmond. Sure, it had some charm and a few little quirks, but nothing that made it an outstanding city. Give me one of the many charm-filled cities in Kentucky or Tennessee any day over this one in Virginia.