Richmond, the capital of Virginia, is a college town, a Federal Reserve site and the location of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
There’s culture, a solid economic base and as it’s located on the James River, quite scenic. But – there’s no turning away from this – it also served as the capital of the Confederacy. Unlike other destinations, the major players of the Civil War, including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant lived there and fought there.
A week after the ugly violence that took place in nearby Charlottesville, I went to see Richmond at this critical juncture in modern history with my work friend, Debby. She had spent much of her childhood in the city and went to undergrad at Sweet Briar, a women’s college just a couple of hours away. A recent transplant to California, Debby certainly doesn’t look at the South as an idol frozen in amber.
But we wondered if there’s still some way to enjoy that which is considered “Southern” and wanted to check out the famous Monument Avenue before it possibly changes forever.
Where to stay
Centrally located Linden Row Inn is rich in history. Over 200 years ago, a very young Edgar Allan Poe was orphaned. His guardian was the property owner; the inn’s courtyard is said to be the site of the garden Poe wrote about in his poem To Helen. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the premises served as the Southern Female Institute and other girls’ schools, counting as its grads that era’s "it girl" sisters Irene Gibson – the famed Gibson Girl – and the future Lady Nancy Astor.
The rooms have amazingly high ceilings, comfy beds and there’s a real, old-fashioned parlor. But the place isn’t in a time warp; in fact, it looks like younger generations love staying here. Local art adorns the walls and the courtyard is a popular gathering place for breakfast and coffee.
Where to eat
Maybe do just a quick drink at Halfway House just to see this amazing place: Debby and I agreed that the cuisine and service wasn’t on point. It dates from 1760, built on land granted by King George II! Everybody you studied in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War dined here. Their kitchen is still outside the building, as was the fire safety method of colonial times.
Everybody from all walks of life eats breakfast at McLean’s, and they have been since 1965. This is real-deal, home-style Southern cooking. Meat selections to go with your eggs or pancakes include fat back, scrapple, country ham, herring and salmon cakes. I tried some flavors that were offbeat to me, but old favorites from Debby’s childhood. Fat back is served very crunchy and deeply hard-fried.
Herring is crispy fried, with a strong but good flavor – similar to anchovies. I also tried, at Debby’s behest, some items that may technically be off-menu, but seemed easy enough for them to rustle up. Scrambled eggs and fish roe are tasty enough, but you absolutely must add salt and pepper. Without seasoning, I couldn’t handle it. I went from there to eggs and brains. Believe it or not, they’re pretty tasty! They’re meaty, kind of like bologna. Maybe bologna is made from brains.
Foodies all over chased Peter Chang all over the South. The former chef for the Chinese Embassy fled his job without proper work permits, a visa or even a passport. Without the ability to take out loans or sign other contracts, his restaurants were unintentional pop-ups. But his creations are some of the most exquisite Chinese food served in this country. And yet, prices are on par with neighborhood joints! Try something you might not have considered trying and be wonderfully surprised: sour flounder and cabbage soup! It’s tangy, light and delicate. Hot and numbing beef has a special pepper that has heat and flavor all at once.
What to do
The James River has Class IV rapids, with kayak and canoe rentals, as well as other active things to do like fishing, rock and tree climbing.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts just wrapped up a fun exhibition titled Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style. The history and glorious clothing were stunning, but who knew that exhibits were the epicenter of selfies now?
The American Civil War Museum has opened a new location at historic Tredegar, an antebellum iron foundry. The thought-provoking exhibits include common household items with their prices before and at the end of the war. In the South, a barrel of flour fetched $1,000, which would be over $14,000 today!
Monument Avenue has seen some protests – including Antifa – but has a strong police presence. Though it mostly features Confederate generals, there’s also a monument to Richmond native and tennis legend Arthur Ashe. If the City of Richmond decides to take them down, it will leave a massive hole in the skyline of that part of town. The avenue stretches for a couple of miles, with the height of the statues towering many stories high.