Tradition with a local touch, and one of Richmond’s most promising new restaurants.
- Who: Jason and Amanda Lucy.
- What: New take on traditional American food.
- Where: 404 N. 2nd Street in Jackson Ward.
- When: Opened January 2014.
- Why: To make comfort food new again.
- Dishes: Meatless Meatball Sub with house made artichoke, spinach & avocado balls, caramelized onion pomodoro sauce, toasted provolone on baguette ($9); Mac & Pork with pan-seared pork loin with a mustard jus and crispy sage, baked tomato mac and cheese ($17); Baxter’s Beef with slow-braised, pulled Monrovia Farm Beef on ciabatta, melted provolone, house made pickles, whole grain mustard-ayonaise ($8).
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Jason Lucy lucked out with a dream opportunity in the local dining scene: he was going to work under the acclaimed Acacia chef Dale Reitzer.1 Lucy was just 16.
Lucy had spent summers working under a Hatteras Island chef, Eric Anglin, who was once a protege of Reitzer. When Acacia opened, Anglin phoned Reitzer and told him to take a chance on the promising teen.
But the dream job never happened.
“I could never find the restaurant, so I never ended up working with him,” said Lucy, sitting at the bar of his eponymous restaurant in Jackson Ward. “I wish I had gotten to work for him, but…if I had my life would have been a lot different. I may or may not have ever met my wife.”
“And I may or may not be sitting here talking to you about my restaurant.”
Nestled in an up-and-coming area (Jackson Ward) where the new is invigorating the old, Lucy’s is also lavishing newness on traditional food. The restaurant hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but it’s rolling with it in a new direction.
Throwing his hat in while in Hatteras
Jason Lucy entered the restaurant biz as a teenager for one reason: money. “A friend of mine worked at a place and he said he made pretty good money.”
The Hermitage High School student discovered that the good money (at least to a teenager) wasn’t the only thing that kept him clocking in. “I really just liked the high-pace adrenaline rush of a busy night, having to hurry and hustle and get things done,” he said. “And the camaraderie you build with your fellow employees when you’re in that state of rush, and you realize you rely on everyone as a team to make it happen.”
During summers, Lucy traveled to North Carolina to live with his aunt and uncle on Hatteras Island. One summer, Lucy got a job at a local restaurant. “I cleaned lettuces and helped them get simple things done because I had no skills, especially with a knife,” he said.
Customers packed the restaurant one night, and the chef, caught unawares by the surprise rush, had no one in the kitchen to help him except Lucy. “He threw a couple heads of romaine on the cutting board and handed me a knife and said, ‘Cut ’em up,'” Lucy said. “At about the third head, I cut the tip of my thumb and had to get five stitches.” He holds up his thumb to show the scars.
Lucy returned to work days later to find the chef “relieved of his duties” and Eric Anglin now leading the kitchen. “He came on and we worked together, and he really, really liked me.”
A visit from the health inspector the following year explained why.
“The second summer I was down [on Hatteras], they had a separate room for the dishwasher. The health inspector came through to do his normal thing. I showed up to work and Eric was talking with him and [the inspector] said, ‘You have the cleanest dish room on the island right now.'”
He probably had the cleanest dishes too. It was a work ethic ingrained into Lucy by his father, uncle, and by Chef Anglin. “Scrubbing the pots so that there was still silver on the bottom…every one of my pots, the bottoms and insides were just spotless. I held myself to that standard in wanting it done.”
After high school, Lucy enrolled in culinary school. He graduated in 2001. He was 19.
“I went in knowing a little bit and I came out knowing a whole lot more,” he said. Like other new culinary grads (and 19-year-olds) Lucy thought he knew everything about life, not to mention cooking. “I still didn’t know everything, and it took me about a year to realize that,” he said. “You really have to keep your mind open to new ideas and new things.” He feels lucky he learned that so young. “I kept it going in that direction.”
After culinary school, Lucy found work at Richmond catering company Cateraide, soaking up knowledge like ladyfingers soak up coffee in a tiramisu. “We would do different things” based on the customers’ wants: Hungarian, Asian, Indian, etc. “So then we had to figure out how to make that. And we did.”
Lucy eventually ensconced himself in the cuisine he enjoyed eating and cooking most. “I’d like to say it’s a simple, American style of food,” he said. “Very comfortable, approachable” and familiar.
Lucy would also find time in his sometimes 85-hour work weeks to date his would-be wife, Amanda, who also worked at Cateraide.
Around 2009, the Lucys started thinking about owning their own restaurant. By this time, Amanda had worked under Andy Howell, the chef-owner behind Zeus Gallery, Avenue 805, and Cafe Rustica. “Working with him and seeing what he was doing” motivated the couple to move their restaurant idea from the back burner to the front.
The pair eventually found a building in Jackson Ward. “We did 80 percent of renovations,” Lucy said. His brother-in-law built the back bar, booths, wall frame, and other components. The couple repurposed doors in the upstairs apartment into kitchen and bathroom doors. “It was a huge money saver, plus I really like the fact that we didn’t just throw them away and buy some brand new stuff,” he said. “It adds character to what this place was.”
Lucy’s opened in January.
So how does Lucy’s stack up to other Richmond restaurants? Lucy explains it like this: places like Dutch & Co., Heritage, The Roosevelt, Acacia are “really pushing the envelope for Richmond, and I love that,” Lucy said. “I think that’s really great for our town.”
But whereas those restaurants push the envelope, Lucy’s fills it with a modern take on the familiar. “The style of restaurant and the atmosphere we want everyone to feel when they come in here is very simple and American,” he said. “Just good ingredients, cooked properly, and done right.”
Few restaurants can claim their beef comes from the family farm. Lucy’s can.
“All of our beef comes from [Amanda’s] family’s farm” in Westmoreland County, Lucy said, which is roughly five miles from Colonial Beach in the Northern Neck. “When we buy beef, I get a whole cow. I get the front shoulder, hind quarter, the rib section, and from there” they improvise a bit.
“That’s why when you look at our dinner menu, we have a ‘beef special of the day’ because I can’t just say we’ll have a ribeye all the time, because I only have two ribeyes that come in on a cow, and I can sell those in a weekend,” Lucy said. “One night it could be braised short ribs with mashed potatoes or succotash, or whatever I can get my hands on that’s good and fresh. And then on weekend’s when you come in, there’ll be a New York strip.”
Customers appreciate the unique quality of beef. Two weeks ago, customers ordered a pair of ribeyes. Before they left, they sent $20 back to the kitchen in appreciation. “It’s nice to know that people recognize what we already know, that our beef is probably some of the best beef in town,” Lucy said.
But one of Lucy’s most popular dishes is the Meatless Meatball Sub.2 “Inevitably, when people first come, it’s because someone sent them here and told them to get [a particular dish],” Lucy said. The meatball sub is often that dish.
Flavoring tradition with newness is something Lucy’s does beyond the kitchen. The restaurant sits among others–Thai Corner, Max’s on Broad, The Rogue Gentlemen, Saison–bringing the new to the old Jackson Ward neighborhood.
“The buildings are being refaced, being renovated for office space or apartments,” Lucy said about the neighborhood. “The old mentalities are kind of going out, and newer ideas are coming in.”
Lucy’s may be among those new ideas now, but its chef-owner hopes it one days becomes a staple. “I hope we’re one of the restaurants [people] would like to see stay around,” he said.
Lucy’s is located at 404 N. 2nd Street.
Photo courtesy of Lucy’s