In this new series, Matt Sadler will focus on what he considers some of the hidden gems in Richmond’s restaurant word — spots that fly under the radar, despite having a good product. It only makes sense to kick the series off with the most important meal of the day: breakfast.
The Richmond area is a great place for restaurants. It’s small enough that the good places are not too busy, and yet it’s big enough that there are always places to be discovered. The series I’m beginning here will focus on what I consider to be some of the hidden gems in Richmond — restaurants that fly under the radar, despite having a good product. They’re the places that aren’t usually noticed: they’re not featured on television shows, they’re not often argued or debated. They are small businesses just trying to make it…and they very well should.
Part One: The Breakfast place
I’m infatuated with the corner breakfast place. I love the mingled smell of grease and coffee in the morning. I love watching the short order cooks work their magic. I love the warm smiles from the familiar wait staff. I love being a regular and having “the usual.” Richmond is full of spots like this, and, for the most part, they all do the trick.
Sue’s Country Kitchen
(1213 Summit Avenue)
Located in Scott’s Addition, the first thing you notice is that the person cooking the food looks nothing like a Sue. When you go to the counter and ask about Sue, the older gentleman will tell you in a thick Lebanese accent, “I am Sue. Like the Johnny Cash song.” He laughs and then introduces himself as Ike, the proprietor of this establishment for the past 18 years. Sue’s is quaint, with no more than 20 seats in the entire place. The limited dining space is probably a good thing since it’s usually only Ike and his wife running the place.
There is nothing particularly special about the menu. It is standard fair, including eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, etc., with no “signature” item. I was curious about something called the mouse trap, but it was nothing more than a grilled cheese. The lack of a signature calling card doesn’t mean that Sue’s isn’t worth the visit. It is the commonality and comfort that makes this place special. It may only be bacon and eggs, but it’s good bacon and eggs. It’s a restaurant that knows what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
(909 Jefferson Davis Highway)
What-A-Burger (not to be confused with the national chain with the same name) prides itself on its cheeseburgers. They do make a tasty burger, but it’s their “Breakfast on a Bun” that entices me every time I drive down 95 South. The breakfast sandwich is the perfect cure for the groggy commuter: egg, meat, and cheese on a large hamburger bun. There are really only three decisions that have to be made when eating here: 1) What type of meat(s) do you prefer? Your choice includes ribeye steak, bacon, bologna, sausage, and smoked sausage. 2) Any cheese? It’s American cheese or nothing at all. 3) Would you like condiments? Ketchup, mayo, or hot sauce might do the trick. I’ve tried all sorts of combinations (including multiple meats) on the same sandwich and found that I am a sucker for the fried bologna more often than not.
(8903 Three Chopt Road)
While the place seems to be buzzing every morning with people in the Near West End, the cafe often flies under the radar to the rest of the city because it’s buried inside the Westbury Pharmacy. There’ s a certain novelty in having breakfast in a drug store. Where it may be less common in other places, the Richmond area seems to have kept the concept alive with Westbury and at least two other pharmacy/food counters (Westwood Pharmacy on Patterson and The Apothecary in Midlothian). Pharmaceutical decor aside, most people go because they can get a nice breakfast with good service for a reasonable price.
I am not by any means a pancake person; I’ll generally choose something savory or sweet any day of the week. So when I say that the pancakes alone at Westbury are worth the trip, I am doing so against my normal self-interest — they are quite compelling. Each flapjack is light, fluffy, not too thick, and so good you almost hate to drench them in butter and syrup. The outer edges have a slight crunch to them, and the flavors are buttery and sweet, the memory of them sticking with you well past breakfast.
For many of us, breakfast is a necessary evil to get us through the day… but we don’t really enjoy it Why would we? Many times breakfast means eating a quick bowl of cereal or a breakfast bar. To me, it is worth it to find a place like a Sue’s where you’ll be greeted warmly, the staff will remember what your four-year-old ordered last time, you’ll enjoy your reasonably priced meal, and everyone will wave goodbye with an expectation that you’ll be able to have such an enjoyable time again soon. If you seek out these under-the-radar spots, you too can experience a bit more of what Richmond has to offer.