Monday, November 8, 2010

Richmond: My Grand Tour

We had one of those weekend trips where you’re sure that you’ve been away for much, much longer and that you’ve been much, much farther away than 90 miles south on I-95. So, Steve had a business trip in Richmond, Virginia, and I got to tag along, and here are the highlights:

--We stayed in the magnificent Jefferson Hotel, opened in 1895 and costing between $5 and $10 million to build and furnish…quite a pretty penny back then. The usual assortment of presidents have stayed there, but I was more intrigued to learn that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were guests (hope they didn’t dance in the fountain while the alligators lived there; yes, the hotel kept alligators for a while) as were Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley “who enjoyed a breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy, milk, no coffee, and home fries, capped off with a scoop of ice cream in cantaloupe.” Also, according to the website, Sergei Rachmaninoff played in The Grand Ballroom and one of the world's most famous dancers, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, was "discovered" as he waited tables in the dining room. (More on the hotel’s history is here.)

The hotel lobby was magnificent, and the ballroom and meeting rooms instantly put “perfect for a wedding” in your mind. Even the gift shop was delightful, already decorated for Christmas. The group had one dinner in the hotel, and instead of being the dreaded “hotel buffet,” the food was truly excellent—it’s always exciting to see macaroni and cheese show up as a side dish; the salad area featured duck confit…yes, as much as you dared to load on your lettuce!; and the peanut cake was a perfect dessert, seeming both light and rich simultaneously. I also liked the cauliflower and artichoke casserole, a surprisingly nice combination.

--I went on the “spouse tour” which was a 2-hour tour of the city followed by a whirlwind visit to the newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Obviously, Richmond has a long, tangled history—not only as the capital of the Confederacy, but as a money town thanks to tobacco, and even a hotbed of revolution during the Revolutionary War years (we saw the church where Patrick Henry gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech). I would also recommend a visit to the large Holly-Wood Cemetery, where lots of famous people are buried as well as the less famous—unknown confederate soldiers, and a touching memorial to them. I hadn’t realized the James River is well-known to kayakers, boasting the only Level 4 and 5 rapids in a city. I learned about a zillion more things about this fascinating city.

We had a highlights tour of the art museum, which worked for the group, though it was tempting to linger and explore more. I was in heaven in a room filled with Tiffany glass, including an outrageous punch bowl that I imagined seeing on my Thanksgiving spread. And I’d never seen Faberge eggs before—not a surprise, since only 50 were made and no one knows where 10 of them are now. But the museum is rightly famous for its collection. I especially loved the clear egg made of polished quartz; push the 7- carat emerald on top and tiny paintings of castles spin around. And they say the czars weren’t in touch with the peasants?

--A writer friend then gave me a very personalized tour of the funky neighborhood of Carytown, filled with restaurants, boutiques, shops, and a grand old movie theatre. We stopped at the wonderful (and happily busy) bookstore Chop Suey Books, which has new and used books and a cute-but-aloof cat named WonTon who ignored me from his tucked-up pose inside a too-small cardboard box next to the cash register (not even a Faberge egg would have turned his head). I was excited to find a signed edition of Fran Lebowitz’s Social Studies. Also notable and not to be missed was the world’s most amazing candy store, For the Love of Chocolate….I know I throw around superlatives, but this store was overwhelming, with literally every form and brand of chocolate you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m pretty sure that you could eat one thing a day and not have to repeat for several years. (If anyone wants to run that experiment, sign me up.) Inhaling the intoxicating spices at Penzey’s Spices was another rush.

--On the way back to Alexandria, Steve and I stopped for Sunday brunch at the The Black Sheep (recommended by my writer friend), which is in an old storefront in the middle of a transitional neighborhood near VCU. What a meal! We were unable to decide what to order, so we over-ordered, getting biscuits and gravy, pot roast hash, and a fried bologna sandwich (which was somewhat like a muffuletta). Then we bought some biscuits to take home. I’ll just say this: when you drive up and see people standing outside in the cold, waiting for a table, you know the food has to be good. Worth the wait—coffee on the patio helped keep us warm—and already I’m dreaming of going back for dinner, or for those other items I had to pass by on the brunch menu. And what about those 2 feet long sub sandwiches...? All I could do was watch them pass by, destined for other tables and other bellies, alas.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.