Last week was Pitt’s Spring Break, and this occasioned a trip to the south. Virginia specifically, because I’m not quite a wild and crazy kid anymore. Ted came, as did friend Will; friend Will’s boyfriend was also supposed to come along, making it a foursome, but then he made different plans, because he is a poopy head (which is a technical term). Defiant of the absent boyfriend’s attempts to rain on our parade, on a rainy Sunday we headed south to warmer climes.
We had used Hotwire.com to book ourselves into a room at the Richmond Omni. In the past, Ted and I have very successfully used Hotwire to get great deals on fantastic hotels in the DC area – we always go for the four or four-and-a-half star hotels, and while they’ll still be in the $100-$150 a night range, in the past they’ve always been outstanding: luxurious, amenity-filled, and at least $100 cheaper than booking through the hotel itself. Around DC, we’ve stayed in The Dupont, which was amazing, the St. Gregory, and two beautiful and comodious Westins.
The Richmond Omni … eh. Look, there was nothing wrong with it. It was clean and spacious and the staff was friendly. But the bed was too hard for my liking, and the lounge wasn’t open when the signs posted in the elevators said it would be. There wasn’t any bottled water in the room. And it turned out not to be in a very convenient location, though driving in the city proved easy, as did catching a cab. So … eh. I don’t have any particular complaints (beside the bed, though Ted found it fine), but I wouldn’t stay there again, either, since it still cost us $130 a night, even after Hotwire’s discount, and it just wasn’t worth that much.
The first night we were there we caught a cab and ended up yelling at a foreigner. We told the driver, who seemed to be of West African extraction, that we wanted to go to a bar called Comfort. He misinterpreted this to mean we wanted to go to the Comfort Inn. When we drove past the bar and told him to stop and turn around … he didn’t. At first we thought he was just looking for a convenient place to make a U-turn, but … nope, he was dead set on taking us to the Comfort Inn. So eventually we yelled at him. Which made us feel a little like jerks, but on the other hand, we were concerned that we might be being kidnapped. Which would totally have ruined Spring Break.
He eventually did return us to where we wanted to be, but then it turned out that Comfort was closed. We ducked into the nearest establishment to regroup, which turned out to be Bistro 27. After a round of drinks and some smartphone Googling, we resolved to strike off on foot to a different locale, but then it started to pour down rain, at which point Bistro 27 became a much more desirable locale. The whole place was being run by an old southern queen; he had plenty of sass and also informed us that he was Jewish, making him perhaps the most unlikely person ever. I sat next to a woman named … shit. Chanterelle? No, it just sounded like that. I remember thinking at the time that her name sounded like a mushroom, but wasn’t quite, and I should make a mental note to remember it, and now I just remember the damn mushroom. Anyway, she got drunk on martinis while Ted and Will got drunk on the local Legend ESB, and I failed to get drunk of some bourbon, for some reason, and the point is people are friendly in ‘Ginny. Ted’s osso bucco was amazing.
We hailed a cab back towards the hotel, but ended up in another bar, because I was hoping to catch up to my male companions. A little Scotch helped that along, but then Will and Ted decided to start stealing things (which is why I don’t mention the name of the establishment). Don’t worry, it wasn’t anything much; it was a weird night, point is. We went back to the hotel and started devouring Baby Cake with our hands, like animals.
Did I not previously mention the Baby Cake? It was a King Cake, for Mardi Gras, technically, which Will had ordered and brought along — Ted and I had also brought along some paczki for Fat Tuesday. All of this traveling pastry proved handy on the nights we returned to our room inebriated.
The next day Will woke early and went out and did stuff; I’ve no idea what. I am not an early riser on vacations. For one thing, I am not an early riser in general. For another, I am a poor sleeper — as a rule, but also extra and especially when traveling because I do not sleep well away from home, without my kittens, and I am usually in some degree of pain because my back and bum leg (herniated disks – neuropathy) do not respond well to long car rides (or plane rides, in the alternative). Point is, Will got up early and did stuff; I’ve no idea what. But by 11:00, everyone was regrouped and ready to head off for the day.sssWe started with lunch at Garnett’s Cafe, which was unbelievably cute and also delicious. I had the “Croque Provencal – Black Forest Ham, gruyere cheese, tomato, and herb mayo on grilled Italian bread topped with mornay sauce” and it convinced me that all sammiches should come with cheese sauce. I also had as my side some delicious homemade pickles. They were crunchy, reminiscent of bread-and-butter pickles, but a little less sweet and more piquant, and just heartbreakingly good; I’d’ve bought a gallon jar of them to take home with me if I could have. These pickles were amazing.
Also Garnett’s served beer, even at 11:00 in the morning, which Ted and Will availed themselves of, while I opted for tea. Fortified, we set off for Charlottesville.There, we went to tour Monticello. I hadn’t been since I was a child, and since then the foundation that runs the place has built a really lovely visitor’s center with cafe, small museum of archaeological artifacts, theater, and gift shop — I regret not seeing the film. A shuttle takes you up the very large hill to see Thomas Jefferson’s house, and a tour guide takes you through the first floor; after that, you’re free to roam the grounds and outbuildings on your own, including a walk down to the family cemetery, if you’re inclined, where Thomas Jefferson and his descendants are buried.
Me: “All of his descendants? The Hemmingses?”
Ted: “One might more properly say that all of Martha Jefferson’s descendants are buried there.”
To be fair, the tour and exhibits make no bones about admitting that President Jefferson fathered children with the enslaved Sally Hemmings. They do point out, however, that his relationship with Sally did not begin until many years after his wife Martha’s death, a relationship Jefferson described as ten years of uninterrupted happiness (she died in childbirth). Fair enough. It’s a tough subject, of course; on one hand, Thomas Jefferson was unbelievably amazing. This is someone who just woke up and invented shit: copying machines, farming techniques, American republican democracy. He was not just smart — I’m smart. He was a genius of once-a-generation proportions, and by most accounts a loving husband, father, and grandfather, a grand and loyal friend, and even a “good” slave owner, relative to how these things go. But of course, there’s no such thing as a good slave owner — the man who wrote “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” kept some of his fellow human beings as chattel to do his bidding and based his claim to the right to do so on the color of their skin.
I don’t know how you reconcile these things; I don’t know how he did. I don’t know that our country ever has or will or can.
After we toured Jefferson’s lovely home, we hit the Jefferson Vineyards for a wine tasting. At $10, it was a little pricey, but we ended up buying a few bottles anyway. East coast wine isn’t necessarily good, but I always enjoy having a bottle of vacation wine to open later at home and reminisce about the trip over. We then moved on to Blenheim Vineyards, where the tasting was only $5 and the wine was better — plus, the guy pouring the tastes was awkwardly cute. A week later at home, Will cracked open his rose and felt moved to remark again how good it was, so. Sidebar: Dave Matthews owns a part of Blenheim Vineyards. I’ve got nowhere to go with that, just sharing.
Driving away from the setting sun, we returned to Richmond and headed to dinner, with a mind to really get the full southern food experience: we were headed to a bar-b-que joint. Buz and Ned’s became known to us thanks to Man vs. Food, the Travel Channel television shows that features Adam Richman traveling about America, eating vast quantities of food, some of it masochistically spicy; I love this show. He had done an episode on Richmond (he’s also been to Pittsburgh, which needs more food challenges, by the by), and so we found our way to Buz and Ned’s BBQ. Adam’s not the only TV food guy who’s been through the place, either. Bobby Flay’s Throwdown! had also been, and apparently, Bobby lost – the episode is on repeat on one of the TVs in Buz and Ned’s.
It’s not the sort of place where one expects there to be luxurious seating and service: you order your food at the window, take a seat at a table you wipe off yourself, and wait for your name to be called over the tinny microphone. Ted and I split an order of pulled pork sandwiches and an order of a half-rack of pork spare ribs. These came with sides: bourbon apples, hushpuppies, mac and cheese.
The pulled pork sammiches were great, tender with a touch of vinegar and spice but mellowed with a little coleslaw. The ribs were sweet and smokey and everything fell apart in your mouth. The quantity was ridiculous, the hushpuppies, though long and skinny unlike any I’d seen before, didn’t disappoint, and the mac and cheese had a lot of crust, which is what makes mac and cheese great. It was a daunting amount of meat, and I don’t know that I’d want to eat that much of it routinely; but as a vacation treat I thought the meal was phenomenal.
From there, we retired to our hotel, too stuffed to do anything except watch a movie on cable. (She’s Out of My League. I like Jay Baruchel [his movie The Trotsky is great], but this “romantic” “comedy” was pretty dreadful. Except! It is shot in Pittsburgh and is like a tourism video handcrafted for our fair city — sweeping shots of the skyline, cozy shots of our little shops and cafes … seriously, it was like a valentine to Pittsburgh. We watched for that, and ignored the plot, which was close to nonexistent.)
The next morning both Will and Ted got up early and did something; again, I’ve no idea what. Then we all went together to another restaurant featured on the Man v. Food Richmond episode, The Black Sheep.Outstanding. We shared biscuits with sausage gravy. I had a mango mimosa that would have been delicious if it hadn’t been watered down with ice, which the waiter called serving it “Richmond Style” and which I call “a bad idea.” I also had the Bayou Breakfast, which was a fried catfish filet and two fried covered with crawfish hollandaise and served with cheesy grits and a slice of andouille sausage and a biscuit. Seriously, again, outstanding. And also eleventy billion tons of food – I almost died. I have no regrets. If I lived in Richmond I would eat at this place once a week at least. Will and Ted ate things too: Will had a Cuban sandwich, I believe, and Ted had some sort of breakfast, but I was too preoccupied with the deliciousness of my own meal to take careful notice. Both of my boys said their meals were excellent, though, so.
After breakfast, Will had to participate in a “webinar” for his job; Ted and I took a nap. It was the eleventy billion tons of food – we couldn’t help it. Upon waking, it was time to drink.We went to McCormack’s Whisky Grill and Smokehouse. It had the biggest whiskey, whisky, Scotch, and bourbon selection I’ve ever seen — hundreds of bottles on the shelves. We sampled a variety of amazing things that I’ve never seen in PA, heard from the owner about how his other establishment wasn’t faring well in the face of a growing number of “urban” clubs in its area, and no,he insisted, he wasn’t a racist; and heard a hard-luck story from the bartendress, who’d been hit by a car in Cleveland, thus reinforcing the fact that Cleveland is, in fact, the worst place on Earth. Here’s what I took from the visit: if you ever get the chance to drink Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey, do it. No matter the circumstance: drink that shit. You will thank me.
From there we took the bartendress’s advice and had dinner at a place called Avalon, which was disappointing in a number of ways, I don’t care what the website says about it winning some “fine dining” award. For one thing, it was a bar/restaurant, and they’d done nothing to sonically shield the dining room from the noise of the bar. For another thing, the service was poor: Ted never got his water refilled, and though we asked for it, we never got more bread. It’s a tapas place, and several of the dishes were good: Ted’s garlic soup and Will’s lentil soup were both very good, as was my grilled romaine ceasar with anchovies; Will said his lamb carpaccio was good, and the aforementioned bread was a very tasty garlic and rosemary foccacio. But Ted’s empanadas were so-so, and my sherry mussels with fried leeks were extremely disappointing: several of them hadn’t opened, meaning they likely weren’t very fresh, and the whole dish was so salty that I couldn’t finish it. Considering the price, the noise, the poor service, and the hit-or-miss nature of the food quality, I would definitely recommend avoiding Avalon if you’re ever in Richmond.
We headed back to our hotel, stopping along the way to buy a six dollar of bottle of wine at a gas station that turned out to be pretty good, considering. Will and I drank wine and ate Baby Cake while watching TV; Ted got sick and threw up. No kidding: he dozed off, woke up, and vomited. We’re not sure who or what to blame, but it was kind of a downer. Luckily, he felt fine by the morning.
We departed Richmond and after a couple of hours on I-95, we stopped in Frederick, Maryland for lunch. Frederick is an adorable little town, and our lunch at The Orchard was very good – it reminded me of Pittsburgh’s The Quiet Storm in its homemade vegetarian friendliness, except it was a bit more upscale. I had a salad and a veggie sammich to try to cleanse myself of all the pork, and the coffee was delicious.
In a slight drizzle we hopped across the street to The Candy Kitchen where we bought a few delicious little chocolates. Will ventured in to a little shop selling designer eye glasses, and overall we decided that Frederick would make a delightful place to spend a weekend. Our last errand on the way out of town was to stop in a liquor store to pick up a gift; my friend David has a lifetime goal to drink as many different gins as possible, so he gave me his “drank so far” list and asked me to be on the lookout for new gins. I found three, actually, but could only afford to bring back one, so he’ll be getting a bottle of handcrafted-in-Virginia, organic, Contoctin Creek gin. Which I hope he plans to share.
Finally we wended our way back home, laden with wines and memories. Richmond was pretty delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed our side trip to Charlottesville and Monticello. I think I would have enjoyed a trip to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum or the Museum of the Confederacy, but I tend to prefer to take my vacations pretty light (the bad back doesn’t help), so alas, the chance was missed. I’m not sure I’d go back to Richmond on purpose, but if I was passing through, I’d definitely stop and eat at The Black Sheep again. Yum.