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A Wet Weekend in the Young Heart of the Old Confederacy 

Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA

Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA

It rained for the better part of the two and a half hours it took to get from Durham to Richmond.

It continued to pour on me after I had dumped off my stuff at the Airbnb—a fifteen-hundred-square-foot loft, all to myself, on Broad Street between Virginia Commonwealth University and downtown; $90 a night; a steal—and walked out to wetly explore the neighborhood. As I was waiting for a light to change at the big, busy intersection of Broad and Belvidere, a black town car cruised past slowly, and, in a way that felt almost methodical, sprayed the contents of a giant puddle directly at me. I'm six feet tall and the water reached my head. It was like a scene in a movie. I was a sad man in the movie.

I trudged back to the Airbnb and changed out of my soaking clothes.

"You're not going to let this discourage you," I said to the bathroom mirror. "You're going to have a nice time in Richmond."

And, actually, I very much did. Relatively new to the South, I'd never given much thought to Richmond. I assumed it was a boring city. It has a boring-sounding name. It doesn't have any professional sports teams. I don't know any cool bands from there. I had never heard anybody say a single word about Richmond until I was assigned to write this piece.

It turns out that Richmond is super charming. It's got the same creative-class downtown revitalization thing happening—cool food scene, new breweries, art galleries, and cute shops in once-abandoned downtown storefronts—that you see these days in every midsized American city that has its shit together. But there are other, broader reasons why Richmond is appealing. All the good neighborhoods pretty much bleed into one another, which makes it walkable. The state capital is there, so there's power and money and gravitas. It used to be the seat of the Confederacy, so there's old, weird history. And there's a big university in the middle of it, so there's lots of young people.

You can open your mouth and taste the gentrification in the air. On recommendation, I had planned to eat dinner at Black Sheep, a restaurant inside an old converted home in what they call the Carver District. It was only a few blocks from my place on Broad Street. On the way there, I was asked for change several times, and passed one person lurking near an empty doorway whom I feel comfortable describing as a troublemaker. A block up, on Marshall, thudding drums and whining guitars emanated from inside an old row house. A twentysomething dude in all black was smoking a cigarette on the porch. Up in the distance, construction wrapping flapped in the rainy breeze beneath a sign for a hulking, new, upscale student housing development called 1200 West Marshall.

Black Sheep was packed and didn't appear to have a bar for a lone man to sit and eat a meal. I tried Saison, a gastropub with an adorable French-like market attached to it, but there were no spots at the bar there either. I ended up at Graffiato, on Broad and Jefferson. (Did you know that Thomas Jefferson designed the state capitol building? Well, he did.) Graffiato is one of those big, sorta-nice wood-fired pizza places with a sleek and sterile design and a noisy interior. It was fine.

I wanted to turn things up a little, though. I did some Googling and flipped through Style Weekly, the INDY's very distant Richmond cousin. I settled on a K-pop party at a spot near VCU called Balliceaux. Korean pop, French-sounding restaurant—you see how cultured I am?

On the way there, I ducked into Baja Bean, which sounds like a burrito chain but is actually a grubby, subterranean VCU undergrad bar. I was sitting at the bar, pretending to be more interested in the Celtics game than I really was, when the power went out. For a minute, it was pretty close to pitch black down there. What does it say about me that my immediate instinct was to reach over the bar and steal one of the liquor bottles? That I am industrious? But then everybody pulled out their cell phones and ruined what could have been an interesting experience.

I finished my drink and fumbled through the dark to the restroom, where a friendly, ordinary-looking man casually offered me a bump of cocaine. "This is the perfect situation for doing coke in a bar," he said, laughing. Hoo boy. I could not deny that. Nor could I deny that the experience would add some interesting texture to my story. And cocaine plus K-pop sounded very much like a winning combo.

I'm not saying I'm too old to do cocaine with strangers in dark bars. Well, maybe I am.

I had plenty of fun without it. Balliceaux is very cool. From the outside, it's got the look of a neighborhood hangout—it's tucked into a residential stretch of Lombardy Street in the Fan District—but inside it's as stylish as its name suggests. The front room is narrow, with two-person booths on one side and tables on the other, leading to a small bar that serves attractive craft cocktails and a small but smart selection of beers. The kitchens serves Thai and French Indochine-style tapas. I didn't have any. I ordered tequila-and-sodas from the well. Our budget isn't that big.

The dance party was in the back room and cost $5. It was a whole other world back there. It's been a while since I've been to a dance party with such a good vibe. It wasn't some hokey, "ha-ha-remember 'Gangnam Style'?" ironic deal. It was a big, sweaty, culturally diverse room full of people getting down with some catchy, weird, loud pop music.

After midnight the songs skewed less K and more pop: work work work work work; dur dur dur dur dur. I met an attractive young Asian woman with tattoos. We texted later. It was cool.

click to enlarge Biking over the James River
  • Biking over the James River

I am not one of those people who wake up early and go to the zoo or the museum when I visit places (though the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is said to be top-notch). I like to eat at expensive and well-reviewed restaurants and drink in weird bars.

But I do like to bike. I find it's the best way to see a new city. You can cover a lot of ground in a shorter amount of time than walking. And you experience the city much more intimately than if you were just driving around.

Around noon on Saturday, I made my way over to Cyclus Bike Shop, in the Church Hill neighborhood, and rented a Fairdale bike for $30 flat. I spent the better part of the day cruising around Richmond (which is mostly nice and flat) on two wheels.

Some observations:

  • Richmond has a ton of murals, which is the result of the aptly named Richmond Mural Project. For the last five years, the group has brought international artists to the city and allowed them to paint the sides of buildings, with the goal of increasing tourism and establishing the city as more of an art destination. It really does enrich the look of the city. I was impressed.
  • The James River is a real treasure. (They call Richmond the "River City," don't you know.) They've got a little riverwalk down there; there's old guys fishing in canoes out in the river; you can lay out by it or even swim in the damn thing if you want, though it was too cold when I was there.
  • The Hollywood Cemetery is worth a solid hour of your time. I recommend the towering, can't-miss-it pyramid tomb, a memorial to eighteen thousand Confederate soldiers; and the mausoleum of William Wortham Pool, also known as the Richmond Vampire. Motherfucker was a vampire! (They say.)
  • The wide, grand Monument Avenue, with its massive, Colonial-style houses and historic statues of Civil War-era heroes, is a stunning stretch of the city. A massive tribute to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, visible up in the sky from blocks away, was erected thirty years after the South lost the war. That's some real Southern shit.
  • For window shopping and afternoon loafing, there's Carytown, a cute strip of retail, bars, and restaurants adjacent to the Fan District. Broad Street between Belvidere and the capitol is a still-gentrifying corridor with more of a city feel and lots of modest spaces housing small businesses (an art nonprofit; boutique clothing shops with not very many items; a hip salon; several galleries). On a New York-looking street corner at Broad and Monroe, a record shop called Steady Sounds shares space with a vintage-clothing purveyor called Blue Bones. Good selections on both fronts, and a strong community vibe to the place; highly recommend.  
  • Food I can vouch for: Comfort (unpretentious, if somewhat pricey, Southern cooking); 821 Cafe (A-plus brunch spot near VCU); smoothies at Lift (Broad Street coffee shop); and coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company (three different locations).

I kept things relatively mellow on Saturday evening. After dinner at Comfort, I asked the bartender for a nearby bar recommendation. He mentioned Quirk, a boutique hotel and restaurant that has taken up residence in an old luxury department store built in 1916. I had passed by early and seen many beautiful people lounging and drinking inside.

"Are there any, like, bar bars around here?" I asked. "Like, dirty bars? Like a shithole?"

"Well," he said, "there's Gwar Bar."

Gwar, a metal band known for blood-soaked beheadings at its shows, hails from Richmond. A few years ago, some of the members opened a bar in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, not far from where I was staying. It was less grotesque than one might expect. In fact, it's pretty much an ordinary dive bar. Ask the bartender about the Sunday 666 specials.

I biked back over to Balliceaux for a garage rock bill featuring Charlotte's Paint Fumes and the Ar-Kaics, a Richmond band just back from a European tour. Fun sets, but I was spent. I'd packed a lot into the last thirty-six hours.

I'm planning a trip back to Richmond soon, though. Southern gentility, a little grime, delicious food—it's worth your time. Go now, before the loft I stayed in is sold to make room for an H&M.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Young Heart of the Old Confederacy"

  • In Richmond, we drank in Gwar Bar, we flirted at a K-Pop party, and we were casually offered cocaine in the dark


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