Why The Black Sheep stands out as one of the city’s most unique restaurants.
- Who: Chef and co-owner Kevin Roberts, and co-owner Amy Hess
- What: The black sheep of dining in the Carver/VCU area.
- When: Opened April 2008
- Where: 901 W. Marshall Street
- Why: To make good food that doesn’t follow the herd.
- Dishes: Favorites include the USS Virginia (fried chicken livers with shredded cabbage, green onions, Granny Smith apples, and remoulade sauce); Ms. P sandwich (avocado, bacon, pimento cheese, tomato, red onion, horseradish served on Texas toast); Saltimbocca (pork loin with prosciutto ham and sage in Marsala wine and tomato sauce served over Israeli couscous risotto with smoked mozzarella).
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“Fuck it, let’s use the whole baguette,” said Kevin Roberts, 43, on April 15, 2008 when The Black Sheep opened its doors in Carver.
Roberts, who leads the kitchen staff as head chef and co-owner, was at an impasse on that first day. He’d imagined offering a larger version of a submarine sandwich, which he called a battleship, but he never worked out just how big it was going to be. Now he had to decide before the first lunch rush arrived. His staff proposed that the sandwich be half of a baguette, but that just didn’t seem long enough to Roberts.
The Black Sheep was mere blocks away from VCU’s campus, and he anticipated many of his customers would be students. As a former VCU student himself, he remembered all too well his bare college refrigerator, so he wanted to create a massive sandwich that students could peck at while in the restaurant, then haul back to their studio or dorm. “Kind of their one-stop shop,” Roberts said. So if he was going to make a massive sandwich, it was going to be big. How big? Two feet–the full size of an uncut French baguette.1
Each battleship on the menu is named after a Civil War-era ship: the USS Cumberland, CSS Virginia, and others. But the names aren’t merely indicative of Roberts’s basic Googling skills. “The name of [the sandwich] has a tie-in with the ingredients, and there’s a story behind it,” he said.
Take for instance the SS Sultana. It was a steamboat that could legally carry just under 400 people. But on April 27, 1865, the boat shepherded 2,427 passengers, most of whom were released Union POWs. That day, three of the ship’s boilers exploded, killing roughly 1,600 people from either the blast or from drowning. It’s still considered the greatest maritime disaster in US history.2
The boat’s namesake at The Black Sheep is grilled ground lamb and beef, a slightly off-color nod to the mangled flesh and limbs left in the explosion’s aftermath. The name Sultana reminded Roberts of the word sultan, which led him to spice the lamb à la Middle Eastern cuisine.3 “Each ship has a tie-in with what the ingredients are or some kind of twist of identity in my head that signifies this belongs with this,” he said.
While Roberts approaches the concepts of his battleship sandwiches with care and thoughtfulness, what people ultimately care about is how tasty the things are. “They’re going out the door,” Roberts said. He estimates the kitchen sends out roughly 500-600 of them each week, far and away the most popular items on The Black Sheep’s menu.
One battleship in particular, the CSS Virginia (fried chicken livers with shredded cabbage, green onions, Granny Smith apples, and remoulade sauce), was featured last year on the TLC show Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America, ranking among the top ten sandwiches in the country. “Our business probably increased 400 percent, at least, after that show aired,” Roberts said.
Roberts’s idea of giving students a sizable sandwich has become even bigger than he foresaw. “The battleships are kind of a Frankenstein’s monster that have just taken over,” he said. The one downside to their popularity is that they often overshadow other menu items. “People come in, and when they don’t order the battleships–like they get dinner, or if they have brunch–we’ll hear about how surprised they are at how good the other stuff is.”
Roberts’s resume includes the Governor’s Mansion, where he cooked for governors Warner and Kaine. After working there, he waywardly bounced from job to job.
When his sister informed him of the for-sale property at 901 W. Marshall,4 Roberts thought he’d start his own restaurant. He even had a name picked out: The Black Turtle, a play on being relatively close to both the James River and its wildlife.
But Roberts’s idea changed after glancing around the neighborhood. “There’s all these chain places,” Roberts said. Extreme Pizza, Qdoba, Five Guys all lined Broad Street. “We’re not them, we’re not Five Guys, we’re not these places…we’re different from that,” Roberts said. “So we’re the black sheep.”5
The name has other relevance too. “My partner [Amy Hess] and I were the black sheep in our family,” Roberts said, bouncing around from job to job, in-and-out of school. But that describes a lot of Richmond. It’d be a black sheep restaurant for a city of black sheep. The name “just seemed to make sense,” Roberts said.
Roberts predicted the restaurant would be an unassuming addition to the local dining scene. “I thought it would be this little sleepy mom-and-pop lunch counter thing,” that catered to students, he said. “This isn’t really what I had envisioned.” Now it brings in all walks of Richmond life.
“You’ll have VCU students, you’ll have families, you’ll have business people, you’ll have old ladies doing lunch…all-black-wearing hipsters next to hot-tea-drinking grandmas,” Roberts said about the restaurant’s clientele.
Roberts thinks the menu is probably the main reason why. “We have a creative menu and we change it often,” he said. Some restaurants change their menus with each of the four seasons. Roberts changes “three of four menu items probably every couple of months.”
On the menu now is Reuben sandwich, put on there in part because Roberts doesn’t get to dine out often and wanted to eat a good Reuben himself. “That’s a determining factor with what makes the menu a lot,” he said. “Is what I want to eat.”
He thinks the rotating menu works especially well for the small 30-seat restaurant. “It keeps things interesting6 and keeps people coming back.”
But no matter how well the restaurant does, no matter how many flirtations with national fame it may get, Roberts thinks The Black Sheep is still aptly named.
A few blocks away you can walk into Chipotle and Qdoba and order tacos and burritos. The Black Sheep also has those items, but their taco is a shrimp taco; their burrito an Indian burrito with aloo gobi and chick pea stew. And The Black Sheep doesn’t do a burger like Five Guys. They might offer a burger one day, but it’ll be a salmon burger, or something else off the beaten path. They’ll never do one, or do any dish for that matter, that’s commonplace.
“It’s a black sheep because it stands apart from all that,” Roberts said.
The Black Sheep is located at 901 W. Marshall Street.
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- You can, if you want, buy a smaller, half-size battleship. ↩
- The reason you probably haven’t heard of it: Abraham Lincoln died twelve days prior. ↩
- He said the SS Sultana is also his take on the Big Mac, as its topped with Russian dressing. ↩
- In the early 1900s, the building housed a small grocer, JJ Miller. ↩
- The Black Sheep is also different in that it offers soda from bottles and not from the fountain. They don’t serve Budweiser or Miller Lite, and until recently, the restaurant didn’t even serve PBR. ↩
- A surprising favorite was the Holiday Spamwich. ↩