After midnight, diners feed their inner foodies with new elevated options for the witching hour.
It's been a lovely evening, you know. The second act eclipsed the first. Or the band decided to do an extra encore. Or the cocktail party went so long that, suddenly, it’s 11 o’clock, and your stomach is telling you the canapés didn’t cut it. These are times when even the best burger on the planet would be a letdown. Sometimes, a swishy evening calls for a cloth napkin and attentive table service to cap it off, and nothing less will do. Fueled by an increase of entertainment options that last well into the night, establishments are answering the call for after-hours grown-up food. More and more, folks are finding that places where you can trot out after the last curtain call for steak frites or a local cheese plate are pleasing alternatives to the flotsam and jetsam of pizza and burger joints that once were our only witching-hour options.
“Diners are much more food-centric now,” says Dean Maupin, owner of the C&O Restaurant in downtown Charlottesville. A discerning palate, he says, is not ruled by the clock. He should know. The C&O has offered late night fine dining since 1976, serving an uptown menu right up until the restaurant’s 1 a.m. closing time seven days a week to what he describes as the everyman clientele typical of a college town: students, professors, artists and all the attendant intelligentsia of a highly educated surrounding community. “They want something good or tasty; something to go with a special cocktail or a craft beer. And they want quality.” Agreed. Who wants to follow up a night at the opera with a plate of cheesy fries?
Maupin says the increased demand is a direct result of his city’s expanding nightlife. “There’s more happening downtown than there ever has been,” he says. And since after-hours eating can be hard on a constitution, healthy eating trends combine with elevated tastes to influence just what winds up on the separate late night menus that are making their debuts in restaurants hoping to capture that market. Not too long ago, the after-hours restaurant trade was ruled by 20-something party pros looking to diners and dives to speed up alcohol absorption with greasy spoon fare. Now even that market segment is opting for artichoke pâté and crème brûlée. “Even kids in their college years or mid-20s are too smart to go to bad fast food places,” Maupin says.
Michelle Williams, a partner in Richmond Restaurant Group, which owns seven popular Richmond restaurants, is another foresighted proprietor who is responding to the top-drawer tastes of this new brand of night owl diner.
Take the late-night menu at RRG’s The Daily Kitchen and Bar, where the kitchen stays open until midnight during the week and until 1 a.m. on weekends. Situated on the Carytown strip in Richmond, The Daily is right on the path of a vital street scene that goes past midnight. “People are out walking on the street,” says Williams. “It’s such a good vibe.” And since it’s within striking distance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is open until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and later for special events, The Daily’s location makes it an obvious draw for hungry art mavens of all stripes. With choices like calamari and a truffled grilled cheese sandwich, The Daily’s late night menu has a touch of the sophistication and creativity that tony palates on the prowl are looking for.
Like The Daily, RRG’s Pearl in the Fan takes late-night cultivated tastes into consideration. While the raw bar dominates, serving up clams, oysters and crab legs (steamed on request) into the wee hours, Pearl, too, has a separate late night menu with such offerings as pan-roasted mussels and crab cakes. “We’ve seen our late night food business continue to grow,” says Williams.
In Virginia Beach, foodies know to head for Harpoon Larry’s when the hunger for grown-up food hits in the middle of the night. Two blocks from the oceanfront, the restaurant has mined its own after-midnight dinner crowd along with—and separate from—its bar crowd. “People will sit there and eat until 2 o’clock in the morning,” says owner Ross Hickam, noting that when the restaurant is open, the kitchen is, too, taking orders right up until the doors are locked at 2 a.m. In fact, Hickam says, food sales from 10 p.m. until closing tend to equal liquor, wine and beer sales. “And they’re not just ordering appetizers or a pound of shrimp,” says Hickam. “They’re ordering big dinners with all the sides.”
Two other factors—beyond restaurateurs’ control—also feed the popularity of dining out late at night. Restaurateurs readily acknowledge one: “There usually isn’t a line for a table,” says Williams, whose establishments often see people waiting for tables during normal dinner hours.
But they are less forthcoming about the other.
“Well, don’t say I said it,” said one source, who shall remain nameless. “You don’t have to put up with kids.”
We have to admit: At times, that is reason enough.