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Richmond: Virginia's capital exudes history and charm
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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How things have changed.

The slogan "Virginia is for lovers" has been in use as the slogan of the state since 1969. However, given its conservative background, Virginia was seen as excluding some couples—most recently, members of the LGBT community.

However, same-sex marriage has been legal in the Southern state since last October, following a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to refuse to hear an appeal of a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

I recently took a trip to Virginia's capital, Richmond. I hadn't been there in a quarter-century ( since graduating from a local college ), so I expected some change. However, in some ways, this Richmnd is nothing like the capital of old—down to its culinary scene, which has some establishments that could rival the restaurants in various U.S. metropolises, including Chicago.

Of course, there are some elements that will always be a part of Richmond, including its charm ( courtesy of some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet ) and connection to history ( Civil War and civil-rights movement ).

Some additional information: On the LGBT front, Richmond Region Tourism launched OutRVA, a campaign designed to show people Richmond's strong LGBT community and highlight the area as a travel destination. OutRVA and Say I Do! have collaborated to offer LGBT couples an exciting opportunity to win the wedding of their dreams! One lucky couple will win an all-expenses-paid wedding at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's Tea House. The wedding will take place March 7.

Also, last year Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the creation of an LGBT Tourism Task Force that will focus on showcasing Virginia as an LGBT-friendly destination and maximizing the opportunity for growth in this new tourism sector.

Arriving in Richmond

Through Richmond Regional Tourism, I arranged a trip to the city recently. The first site I visited was the Jefferson Hotel ( 101 W. Franklin St.; ), a luxury spot that offers everything from afternoon tea to ( fake ) alligators throughout the hotel. The staff is friendly in a venue that's full of history—down to the fact that 13 presidents have stayed there, including both Roosevelts, McKinley, Clinton and Obama.

Next, I went to Linden Row Inn ( 100 E. Franklin St.; ), a boutique hotel that's unlike any other place I've stayed. The Travel Alternatives Group ( TAG )-certified accommodation is composed of seven row houses built in the mid-1800s—and they have been painstakingly rebuilt. ( "TAG-certified" means a hotel has agreed not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in its employment practices, and to actively outreach to the LGBT community. )

Staying in the Linden Row Inn felt like being in a Southern mansion. The hotel's website states that "Edgar Allan Poe spent his childhood playing in the garden that is now the hotel's garden courtyard"—which may have been why it seemed there was an atmosphere that was moody, yet comforting. Also, kudos go to the staff—who were among the nicest people I met during the entire trip.

I then went with two tourism reps to the acclaimed restaurant L'Opossum ( 626 China St.; ), which crushworthy chef de cuisine/sole proprietor David Shannon said was named, in part, because of how adding the "L'" in front of almost anything makes it sound more upscale.

As a testament to its cuisine, L'Opossum recently won an Elby ( regional restaurant award ) for best new restaurant. Believe me when I tell you this place has to be experienced to be believed. Not only is the cuisine unbelievable ( with items such as the hummus-focused Polyamorous Hippie Three-Way, the Faberge Egg Bedazzled with Caviar and the Jump Lump Crab Cakes: All Crab, All the Time ), but the decor is just as entrancing, reflecting Shannon's penchant for things eclectic and thought-provoking.

Hilton, Valentine and a culinary stroll

The next day started with a visit to The Hilton Garden Inn-Richmond Downtown ( 501 E. Broad St.; ). The inn—which used to be a Miller & Rhoades department store—is in the process of becoming a full-scale Hilton ( which means amenities such as room service ). However, in the meantime, this place has plenty to offer, including an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Then I took part in that most tourist-y of things: a tour of the city, courtesy of RVA Trolley ( 1301 E. Cary St.; ). The tour is a fascinating journey of Richmond landmarks that encompasses everything from Jackson Ward ( once called the "Harlem of the South" ) to Shockoe Slip to Monument Avenue, which features statues of such figures as J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and ( yes ) tennis player Arthur Ashe, who was born in Richmond. If you're an information junkie like me, you'll absolutely love this.

Then it was time to experience history from a different perspective at the Valentine Museum ( 1015 E. Clay St.; ). The museum displays everything from a 1940s Eskimo pie wrapper to objects from the antebellum South. ( I'm sure you all know Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. ) However, the museum's Bill Martin ( who's quite outspoken, but in a good way ) graciously provided a more thorough experience, as he led me through the venue's huge vaults, where I saw clothing people wore almost two centuries ago. However, the most hard-hitting item I saw had to be the slave receipts Martin revealed in a drawer in the main part of the museum.

For a moment, Martin and I also enjoyed the fare from Sally Bell's Kitchen ( 708 W. Grace St.; ). It may have been one of the boxed lunches I've had in my life. This place is highly recommended.

However, that food was just the start, as I then embarked on a culinary tour ( with a small group ) of some impressive spots, courtesy of Real Richmond Food Tours ( ). Among them was Coppola's Deli ( 2900 W. Cary St.; ), which has been in Carytown since 1982; Citizen ( 909 E. Main St.; ), an amazing place that focuses on vegetarian place but is almost too easy to miss; The Tobacco Company Restaurant ( 1201 E. Cary St.; ), which gets 1 million visitors annually; Bistro Bobette ( 1209 E. Cary St.; ), which has won at least one Elby itself; and the enticing Casa del Barco Restaurant & Tequileria ( 320 S. 12th St.; ).

Before going into Casa del Barco, our group hit the Canal Walk ( ), which includes restaurants, riverfront and art—the last in the forms of intriguing murals.

I then checked into the Omni Richmond Hotel ( 100 S. 12th St.; ), which also features—surprise, surprise—outgoing and extremely friendly staffers. Luxury was the name of the game here, as I was put up in a penthouse suite complete with a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and two bathrooms. A guy could get used to that.

Phil Crosby of the theater organization the Richmond Triangle Players and his partner, David, took me to dinner at Graffiato Richmond ( 123 W. Broad St.; ), an Italian restaurant of acclaimed chef Mike Isabella, who competed on Top Chef. The concept is small plates and pizzas, which are impressive. However, the staff also stands out here—Phil, David and I marveled at the fact that practically everyone who works here is extremely telegenic.

Flowers and ( thankfully, more ) food

The following day started with a workout. ( No, I'm serious. ) Although the Omni doesn't have its own facility, it doesn't need one. The YMCA of Greater Richmond ( 1051 E. Cary St.; ) is behind the Omni ( accessible through a hall that houses a very popular Starbucks ). And this YMCA doesn't play around—it's jammed with every type of machine to work every part of you.

Then it was a trip to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden ( 1800 Lakeside Ave.; ). The venue is very expansive ( 50 acres ), and includes several gardens, including one for children, as well as a huge solarium that made me think of Chicago's Lincoln Park Conservatory, which I often visit. I have to be honest: An unusual cold snap affected the flora, but it made me yearn for a return visit to see the garden in full bloom.

I then met Bill Harrison, CEO of the Gay Community Center of Richmond, and his partner, Mark Burkett, at Can Can Brasserie ( 3120 W. Cary St.; ), a bustling French restaurant that offers brunch items such as bouillabaisse, Croque Monsieur and cinnamon waffles.

We left that place and went to For the Love of Chocolate ( in the Cary Court Park & Shop at 3136 W. Cary St.; ). Not only is this shop gay-owned, but it provided me a very tasteful ( and tasty ) way to stroll down memory lane.

Burkett co-owns Mongrel ( 2924 W. Cary St.; ), a very unique card-and-gift store that I could've stayed in for a whole day. While there is no online shop, per se, there are store items on display; if interested in something, call 804-342-1272.

Of course, a visit to Richmond wouldn't be complete without seeing the Virginia Fine Arts Museum ( 200 North Blvd.; ). When I went, the museum had the "Forbidden City" exhibit, which was entrancing on its own. However, I'd gladly return to see current exhibitions such as "Fusion: Art of the 21st Century" and "States of Change in Africa."

Sadly, all good things must come to an end—although it did conclude on yet another high note, as I went to The Hard Shell ( 1411 E. Cary St.; ). As one might expect from a seafood restaurant on the East Coast, the food was spectacular—although if you're a vegetarian, like my dining companion is, the restaurant can work with that as well.

For Chicagoans, Richmond may not seem like the first city to visit. However, it has something for everyone—and some of the most charming people you'll meet, exemplifying that Southern hospitality.

I want to thank Richmond Region Tourism for arranging this trip—and I also need to extend a special thanks to Margaret Coxe, who drove me to several of the spots and was a beacon of optimism throughout the day.

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