Richmond's Boathouse restaurant is a river scene.
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The Long View
Outdoor balconies are popular social perches during the spring, summer and fall.
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Leigh Anne Schuler
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Crab Cake Chesapeake
Since British tall ships first reached the fall line of the James, the tidal river has served as the artery of Richmond’s commerce. Rough docks and later train tracks lined its shores, and people lived far from that industrial zone; they wouldn’t dream of venturing riverside to dine.
In the centuries since, the shipping lane stopped short of the city and the river evolved into a major recreational area. Luxury housing began to crowd its banks, but at the turn of the 21st century River City didn’t have a single shoreline restaurant.
Then came the Boathouse, which restaurateur Kevin Healy opened in 2009. The timing was unfortunate—it opened “about a year or so after the recession hit,” points out Executive Chef Todd Richardson. Yet, despite the economic challenge, the high-end venue wooed and secured an impressive following by doing what no Richmond restaurant had—taking us to the river.
The Boathouse on the James, sibling to the Boathouse at Sunday Park in nearby Midlothian, sits on the outside bend of the river, at the edge of the new-urbanist Rocketts Landing Village. The restaurant inhabits the top floors of a strikingly renovated power plant that once drove the city’s trolley system and still boasts an iconic brick smokestack.
As restaurant venues go, it is an impressive location. And Healy has given the place some key updates—starting with a wide balcony, the perfect spot for a drink, and floor-to-ceiling windows inside offering ever-changing views. While guests sample crab puppies and Monticello-grown Chardonnay, great blue herons hunt in the shade of the far bank and the Virginia Commonwealth University crew team rows into the tide (they share the building’s lower floor with the Virginia Boat Club). The downriver view includes the Rocketts Landing marina, but the money shot is upriver to the city’s growing skyline—the converted brick warehouses of Tobacco Row and the crest of the historic Church Hill neighborhood.
“We’ve got the location,” says Richardson, a Williamsburg native who took the helm of the Boathouse in 2010 after honing his skills in the kitchens of such River City favorites as Helen’s, Patina Grill and Kuba Kuba (recently lauded by the Food Network for serving Virginia’s best breakfast). But, he continues, “Not everybody’s coming back to see the view.” They also come for river-inspired dining. And they keep coming. Even on an icy Friday night when the balcony is closed and the river is an inky void beyond the glass, the dining room is full, the bar overflowing.
The menu is straight forward, but offers something for everyone, from gourmet pizza to pastas to steak, and the most exciting recipes reflect an aquatic muse. Take the crab, Brie and grilled asparagus pizza, or the house-made lobster manicotti with rock shrimp diablo sauce. Even the 8-ounce filet is topped with crabmeat.
And while much of the fresh catch arrives by plane, including lobster from Maine, mussels from Prince Edward Island and crayfish from Louisiana, an increasing share of the offerings come from Virginia waterways. Cap’n Tom’s of Lancaster provides Rappahannock crab for the pizzas, filets and, most importantly, the Crab Cake Chesapeake—a back-to-basics signature Boathouse dish. Two quarter-pound crowns of clean lump crabmeat, minimally bound and seasoned, offer uninhibited freshness and flavor.
The oysters hail from the Piankatank River, an offshoot of the Rappahannock and home of Chapel Creek Oyster Company. On the night of our most recent visit, we sampled a half dozen on the half- shell with a blackberry barbeque sauce seasoned with fennel and molasses. Though local, these oysters are not wild-caught. They’re farm raised, which has little effect on the oysters’ flavor but is a big factor in the future of these bivalves, says David Greer, Virginia Development Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The Chesapeake Bay oyster is decimated,” explains Greer. As late as the 1970s, roughly 25 million pounds of oysters came out of the Bay each year. No longer. “Depending on who you ask, the oyster is one to five percent of its historic population high.”
Still, says Greer, “There is good news,” and that is the growing popularity of oyster farms like Chapel Creek Oyster Company. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation strives to restore both the oyster population and the oyster industry, and Greer says that the aquatic farms are something the Foundation fully supports. “They are a win-win because you’re not stressing the existing oyster population.”
Really, at the Boathouse, it’s a win-win-win. The blackberry barbeque oysters are part of the menu’s Watershed Specials. Introduced last July, these showcased dishes feature locally grown ingredients. But while local sourcing is now common in fine dining, the Boathouse’s Watershed Specials are unique: 20 percent of their sales are donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Friends of the James River.
The partnership was Healy’s brainchild. “They got so many requests for donations,” explains Boathouse spokeswoman Phaedra Hise. “Kevin wanted to have a long term relationship with a nonprofit that’s doing good work, and he feels really strongly about the water.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation loved the idea. “We have restaurants that recycle the oyster shells for habitat restoration projects,” notes Greer. “We have a restaurant in Annapolis that donates one percent of sales. So, there are relationships with other restaurants, but not the way it’s being done at the Boathouse. Not about a menu and not specifically about buying local. That is a unique message.”
Chef Richardson is proud of the program, but his focus remains on the product. “We should do our part to support the community, especially when it helps the quality of our food,” he says.
Recent Watershed Specials include a bouquet of greens from Powhatan County’s Manakintowne Specialty Growers, wrapped with pasture-raised Surryano ham from Surry topped with artisan fromage blanc from Caromont in Albemarle. Past offerings paired Chapel Creek oysters and Surry bacon in a white bean stew, and Hanover tomatoes with locally grown basil and house-made mozzarella in a Caprese salad. And in April and May, when striped bass (known locally as rockfish) migrate from the Atlantic up the freshwater tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, they’ll likely show up on the menu. Not surprisingly, guests are drawn to these freshest of items—to date, each nonprofit has received roughly $4,000.
Now the Boathouse is looking for ways to deepen its commitment to local businesses. They’ve sought out grits that are stone-ground just up the road in Ashland, and syrup distilled from sugar maples in Highland County. But they’re also doing more in-house. “We’re making more of our own pasta,” notes Richardson. “And we want to bake all our own bread.” With the completion last month of a new second kitchen, his team is poised to tackle that goal.
“The Boathouse needs to be patted on the back,” says Greer. “They are taking a step out, celebrating local and fresh and the region. If we could get others to follow on that path we’d have fewer problems with the Chesapeake Bay.”
We are ready to do our part. Rarely has a platter of oysters and a glass of Chardonnay tasted better, and accomplished more.