Richmond’s Riches: Southern Food and Drink - and Gay Hospitality

by Matthew Wexler
Thursday May 26, 2011

At a time when many Americans are celebrating a reprieve in "the war on terror" and gleefully preparing to barbecue chicken as their observance of Memorial Day, it is safe to say that most are not commemorating the loss of more than 620,000 American lives and the eventual emancipation that happened on our own land and among our own people just a short 150 years ago. Then there’s Richmond.

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital of Richmond turned on itself as beleaguered officials and commoners alike collapsed under the pressure of orders to destroy food, supplies, tobacco and alcohol before the Union invasion. Looting and pillaging ensued, followed by rampant fires that left the city center in ruins. Richmond, like much of the country, would eventually rebuild and redefine its presence as part of the reunited American landscape.

Today, Richmond not only understands its past, but also embraces the threads that weave it into the fabric of our country’s history. From museums and live performance to what may be the most underrated culinary scene east of the Mississippi, Richmond is evolving as fast as the Class IV rapids that flow along the James River. The undertow of its dark past is never far away, but it is this character that imbues the city with an ethereal quality that captivates and challenges those who explore it.

A History Worth Revisiting

Richmond’s historical highlights offer a fresh look at some of the darkest moments of our nation’s past. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.

Anchored by the Tredegar Gun Foundry built in 1861, the complex consists of five historic buildings including the Richmond National Park Visitor Center. The permanent exhibit, In the Cause of Liberty, is a haunting reflection of the war told through narrative, artifacts and multimedia installations.

While The American Civil War Center offers a dynamic perspective of the war, the Hollywood Cemetery, opened in 1869 and designed by noted architect John Notman, is an opportunity to introspectively reflect on its impact. The winding paths and rolling hills encompass 135 acres and serve as the resting place for two United States Presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler, and the only Confederate States President, Jefferson Davis. A 90-foot granite pyramid commemorates the resting place of more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers.

The Virginia Historical Society is a striking neoclassical structure whose current exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, encompasses 3,500 square feet of gallery space dedicated to exploring the impact of the war from both a historical as well as contemporary perspective. The exhibit is free and runs until December 2011.

Arts & Entertainment

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Richmond’s arts and entertainment also contributes to the vibrant pulse of the city, whether it is a visit to one of the city’s longstanding cultural institutions or movie night at a National Historic landmark. Most notable are three anchors that position Richmond as a thriving arts center of the region.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was opened in 1936 during the height of the Depression as a bold expression of the importance of the arts by political and business leaders. A new addition opened this year featuring a 40-foot-high glass wall overlooking the Boulevard, sculpture garden and new gallery space, bringing the museum’s footprint to approximately 550,000 square feet. Upcoming exhibits include FabergĂ© Revealed (July 9, 2011 - September 2, 2011) featuring the largest collection of FabergĂ© in the United States, and Elvis at 21, a collection of forty dramatic photographs taken by Alfred Werthheimer in 1956 as Elvis teetered on the brink of stardom (December 24, 2011 - March 18, 2012).

Richmond CenterStage

Richmond CenterStage continues the legacy of live performance in the region that dates back more than 200 years. CenterStage Foundation (formally known as the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation) was established in 2001 to bring a new performing arts center to Richmond. The result is a multi-venue complex that includes the historic Carpenter Theatre as well as the intimate Gottwald Playhouse and funky and adaptable Rhythm Hall.

CenterStage’s new Executive Director and CEO, Richard Parison, Jr., is helping the organization find its sea legs during tough economic times and is committed to programming that is culturally diverse and resonates with local communities. "With purposeful and impactful programming," shares Parison, "we’re taking small steps in the hopes of achieving global results." In a bold move, he has secured legendary Broadway performer Bernadette Peters to headline CenterStage’s inaugural gala. This not-to-be-missed event is September 10, 2011. For ticket information, visit

The Byrd Theatre

The Byrd Theatre, located in the quaint shopping district of Carytown, was built in 1928 and still features the original vibratory stylings of the "Mighty Wurlitzer" every Saturday night.

The movie house was designed in the French Empire style and features hand painted murals inspired by Greek mythology. An architectural wonder for its time, the cantilevered balcony ensures a great view from every seat. The theatre has also installed state-of-the-art technology including a Dolby Digital sound system.

The Byrd shows first-run films, a host of independent features as well as the annual VCU French Film Festival, the largest French film festival in the United States.


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