How the owner of Baja Bean fell into the post-Civil War inspired restaurant that’s unlike anything in Richmond.
- Who: Ron Morse.
- What: Post-Civil War inspired cuisine with a modern flair.
- When: October 2013.
- Where: 1323 W. Main Street in The Fan.
- Why: To be a Richmond restaurant unlike any other.
- Dishes: Pan-roasted salmon, fennel clam sauce, celery root, watercress, and fennel cream ($16); Postbellum Burger with ducky mushrooms, charred onions, turnip greens, and truffle mayo ($12); Fried fingerling potatoes, blue cheese beer dip ($7); Confit Chicken Leg with red grapes, smoked clams, and watercress ($18). Roughly 20 craft beers on tap.
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Ron Morse has a secret about his restaurants.
“I like to sleep in every place that I open,” he said inside his newest restaurant, Postbellum. Morse would drive from Charlottesville, where he lives with his wife and four children, to spend long hours readying the restaurant before it opened.
Instead of renting a hotel room, Morse–a svelte middle-aged man whose tan still reflects his Southern California upbringing–keeps a blow-up mattress in the back of his Honda CR-V. “I’ll work until 3:00 or 4:00 AM, and then just I just plug in my thing and lay there and go to sleep and wake up four hours later,” he said.
But sleeping in his restaurants isn’t about saving money on hotels. “You really get in touch with your space. It’s the middle of the night, you’re walking around and looking at things…it gives you a different perspective,” he said. “You get to know it.”
What Morse has found out–and what diners now discover–is that Postbellum is unlike any restaurant Morse owns, or has owned before.
The name, Postbellum, is a deliberate nod to the South’s post-Civil War reconstruction. But the name’s also representative of other reconstructions: the renovation of a once underused building and a reshaping of the city’s dining scene.
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Life in San Diego in the late 1980s wasn’t so great for Morse. Years prior, he’d studied business in college. “I had a done a feasibility study in a venture management class on Domino’s, and I got interested in [the company], more on the money side than the restaurant side,” he said.
He worked for the company straight out of college with the vision of one day owning his own Domino’s franchises. “Things were a little crazy back then,” Morse said of the late 1980s. It was the heyday of the ‘your pizza delivered in 30 minutes or it’s free’ promise. “Insurance got crazy,” Morse remembered. “After working for them for about a year-and-a-half, getting robbed a couple of times, I was like, yeah this isn’t so much fun.” He didn’t want the corporate work life. “And I didn’t want to wear polyester clothes.”
At the time, his fiancée attended William & Mary on scholarship. After spending the first 25 years of his life in San Diego, Morse moved to Virginia to be with her full-time.
There was a massive culture shock Morse hadn’t prepared for. “There weren’t any Mexican restaurants in Williamsburg. I thought, ‘Man, this is weird,'” Morse said. His time at Domino’s was purely motivated by business reasons, but his first restaurant “came out of a need to fulfill my personal side more than my business side.”
Having grown up 20 minutes from the border, Mexican food was as omnipresent as sunshine in San Diego. “I probably didn’t go a day in college without eating Mexican food,” he said. “All the places were open 24 hours a day, so there were taco shops where you’d go get a burrito at 2:00 AM coming out of the bar, and then you’d get up in the morning and have chorizo and eggs.”
“That’s what I wanted to recreate here [in Williamsburg], we just need a fast, Mexican-casual, no sit-down [place].” He opened Baja Bean in 1989.1 Business boomed. People asked for tables to sit-down. He added them. What about beer and wine? He added them too. Before long, Baja Bean grew from a bite-sized snack to full-bore restaurant. “I still thought it was going to be temporary,” Morse said. “I thought, my wife will graduate, we’ll move back to San Diego and do whatever we’re going to do.”
So why didn’t they leave?
“Business got good. Got better,” he said. Morse later opened a deli in Williamsburg, a sports bar in Charlottesville, and brought Baja Bean to Charlottesville, Staunton, and Richmond. Currently, he owns the three Baja Bean locations, Station 2 in Church Hill, and Postbellum in The Fan.
About three years ago, Morse believed Baja Bean in The Fan was going to be out of a home. “I started looking for new places to go, because I thought I was going to go too.”
He didn’t need to look far. Down the street, the owner of Mulligan’s hoped to sell. “I was just hedging my bet to see about another location,” Morse said. “I had no interest in this [place] other than to move Baja” if needed.
Baja’s landlord had a change of heart, and renewed the lease. So Morse’s interest in the Mulligan’s location faded away after signing Baja’s renewed lease.
Or so he thought. “Got a phone call a handful of days later from an employee whose roommate worked [at Mulligan’s],” Morse said. “The guy came to cook and the doors were chained shut.”
ECK Properties shuttered the doors due to a hefty sum of back rent they were owed. ECK approached Morse to see if he’d be interested in buying the space. “It’s a great spot,” Morse thought at the time. “Very underused for what it is and where it is.”
Since 2011, Morse had success with Station 2. Helping him run it was Ryan Koontz, who had worked at Baja for seven years before helping to open the Shockoe restaurant. “I just find people, like Ryan, who work for me for a while,” Morse said. “You know pretty early on…they’re the kind of people that can run their own restaurant”
“So when I find someone like that, a lot of times now that’ll push me to open a new place.”
Mulligan’s had never been known for its food. “It was dirty and smokey and the food wasn’t good at all,” Morse said. He and Koontz began discussing how they could reconstruct the restaurant for a better purpose. Morse submitted a sealed bid to ECK Properties to take over the space, and won the bid in December 2012.
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“It’s funny how you’ll find a space and you don’t really have a great idea…like when we put in our bid, we didn’t have a great idea what the menu was going to be,” Morse said. “We had this idea of opening a new restaurant and making it higher end,” Morse said. Not only would the new restaurant not compete with Baja Bean down the street, it would offer something new to the area.
“Ryan came up with Postbellum” as the name, Morse said, because Mulligan’s would be “totally gutted,” not unlike the remnants of post-Civil War Richmond. But just like Richmond in 1865, not everything was thrown away before the rebuilding.
“All the tables in the whole place are the floor that used to be here,” Morse said. Old doors were used to make the booths and the downstairs bar. “It is something that we’re proud of,” Morse said. “We’d much rather do that than just cut down some more trees and make some more wood.”
Pulling up the wood floor was easy. Re-treating the old terra-cotta floor tile wasn’t. Layer after layer of polyurethane (and even a layer of beeswax) kept the old floors from being restored. Morse said three companies “and one buff dude” couldn’t get the polyurethane off the floor. He said it “took probably 10 days [of employees] using hand scrappers” to scrap off the polyurethane. “But it’s cool and we really like it,” Morse said about the floor.
The downstairs also has a backbar that was found in a barn in Albemarle County. The bar’s antlers were Mulligan’s leftovers (hidden behind a row of large TVs) that Morse negotiated for last-minute before signing the lease. The antlers are the crown jewel of the old-timey knickknacks curated from thrift stores and auctions across the state to play up Postbellum’s antique feel.
But a restaurant’s feel isn’t enough. Postbellum needed a menu and chef too.
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To develop the menu, Morse tapped Jen Mindell (Avalon/Rooster Cart/Cafe Gutenberg). “She got really excited about creating foods in a similar manner and a similar style which she would have done post-Civil War,” Morse said. “Lots of smoking of meats, lot of curing meat… lot of pickled vegetables. Things you had to do back then to make food last.”
But she’s remade those items with modern tastes. For instance, the Grilled Pork Ribeye comes with homemade kimchi. Snack peanuts aren’t out of the tin, but smoked with rosemary. There’s a charcuterie board with cured meats, house rillettes, mustard, and jam. Mindell also manages to use canned brown bread. “It’s like World War II provisions,” Morse said describing the Bush’s product. “But if you take it out and cook it properly…it’s a really neat, molasses-flavor profile mixed in with all these items that you’re eating.”
These items and others make up a menu of “things you aren’t going to find in a normal restaurant,” Morse said. “I think if you look at this menu compared to 95 percent of menus in town, it’s that different.” But different doesn’t mean wholly exotic. Morse said the food is “appealing enough to a foodie that’s going to come in that really likes cutting-edge stuff, but then appealing to someone, like me, who’s a little more simple.”
No matter which customer Postbellum serves, “you want people to enjoy their experience so they’re going to come back,” Morse said.
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With five restaurants in operation, and others that no longer exist, how does Postbellum fit into his career?
“I think it’s the next level of foodery,” he said. “It’s a concept that you can create in another town, but would it make sense in another town?” For him, Postbellum is uniquely Richmond.
And as to whether he’ll open another restaurant–a new concept in Richmond or by expanding Baja Bean into Morgantown, West Virginia, as some have encouraged–Morse remains uncertain. “I don’t know what the future holds,” he said.
But he’ll keep his air mattress just in case.
Postbellum is located at 1323 W. Main Street.
photo courtesy of Postbellum
- Baja Bean celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. ↩