Putting Richmond’s Black Restaurants On The Map

by | Mar 14, 2019 | EAT DRINK

2019’s Richmond Black Restaurant Experience brought an inclusive celebration of local cuisine to delicious life last week.

For the third year in a row, Amy Wentz, Shemicia Bowen, and Kelli Lemon highlighted the ultimate hidden gems in Richmond through a week celebrating some of the 67 black-owned restaurants in the city.

Black Restaurant Week started out in Memphis, Tennessee, and expanded to other cities across the country, including Richmond. Wentz, Bowen, and Lemon got Richmond restaurants on board the first year BRW came to Richmond, with Mama J’s being an early participant in the week. After the first year BRW had come to Richmond, a group in Texas trademarked “Black Restaurant Week,” but this didn’t stop Wentz, Bowen, and Lemon from pursuing the event.

They then renamed the week as the “Richmond Black Restaurant Experience” to keep it alive.

“Richmond is so loyal to local,” Wentz said. “It just made it that much easier.”

Of the 67 black-owned restaurants in Richmond, 28 participated in this year’s Black Restaurant Experience, according to the RBRE website. In order to get restaurants involved, the founders went down the list of black-owned restaurants in Richmond, called the owners, and asked for their participation.

“We’re really being put on the map for our dining scene,” Wentz said. “We have a lot of restaurants in the city that people don’t even know exist, so we want to make sure to highlight them and provide them with support.”

Unlike traditional restaurant weeks, there weren’t set menus or prices at participating restaurants. Instead, the founders left it to each restaurant to decide how to create an experience for guests that would make them want to come back, Wentz said.

“We found that our set of restaurants is so diverse,” Wentz said. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t limit the restaurants for being able to participate by only offering a certain type of thing.”

The mission of RBRE also set it apart from other restaurant weeks: to create a week about food and culture. With their tagline, “where culture meets cuisine,” the founders empowered participants to delve deeper into the week and embrace community.

One such event, “A Seat at the Table: Dinner Party Social,” invited guests to enjoy live art by painter Justice Dwight and music by Dulcet Duo RVA while indulging in soul food such as chicken wings, Boogaloo’s beloved fried broccoli, and, of course, cocktails.

On March 3, local event planner Shadae Lee of LadyDae Events hosted “A Seat at the Table” at Boogaloo’s, one of the many hidden gems of the black restaurant scene in Richmond. As this was Lee’s first year participating in RBRE, she said she had wanted to find a restaurant that not many people knew about to host an event that would invite guests to step outside of their comfort zones.

“I am African American, and I’m big on my culture. But I like to include different ethnicities, different cultures,” Lee said. “For [RBRE], it doesn’t mean you have to be a black person to attend. I think the event on Monday definitely created that vibe and aura that anyone could come and feel welcome.”

New to the event-planning scene in Richmond, Lee said she was interested in continuing to create community events surrounded by arts, food and culture like her RBRE event had.

“I’ve noticed that it’s been pretty diverse,” Lee said about the RBRE events that she had attended. While following RBRE for three years she said that there had been an influx of different cultures and diversity.

Melody Short, a marketing consultant for RBRE participant C’est le Vin, echoed the diversity that had been present during the week.

Short also emphasized the power and notoriety that the RBRE brings to the restaurants themselves.

“I look forward to this time of year,” Short said. “I think it’s absolutely important that the city of Richmond has a platform to celebrate black restaurants. In many ways it helps to introduce the city, black and white, to black owned restaurants.”

Although it was the first year that C’est le Vin founder Genet Semere had hosted an event for RBRE, it was not the first time that Short had been a participant in the week. Due to the success of the event, Short said that she thought that C’est le Vin would likely participate in years to come – so look forward to more live music, wine tasting, and plenty of cheese and crackers.

As a participant in the week, Short said that it was fun to look at the list of participating restaurants to see where she had yet to dine. Immediately upon arrival from a trip, Short ventured to a participating restaurant for what she fondly referred to as a reunion.

“It feels like a reunion of sorts because you’re running into so many people,” Short said. “For me, it personally feels near and dear to my heart because I know the power of spending black is something that goes unrecognized.”

This power of spending black was evident from the start. The RBRE kick-off event, Mobile Soul Sunday, hosted on Hull Street, invited food trucks, performers, street vendors, musicians, breweries and sponsors alike to start the week off strong.

Wentz said that about 3,600 people had attended the event on Sunday, and that it was cool to see business owners on Hull Street step outside their doors and see what they had to offer. Despite the high attendance, the same diversity seen at other RBRE events was not as evident at the kick-off event. But Wentz didn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome.

“It’s not just for black people,” Wentz said. “We want everybody to taste these amazing flavors and experience the culture with our cuisine. This isn’t an exclusive thing, this is an inclusive thing.”

In an effort to highlight the inclusivity of the event and give back to Richmond, RBRE also made the effort to include a non-profit partner in the event like past years.

This year, the Food Justice Corridor, part of the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, benefitted from the RBRE, which focuses on helping economic inequality throughout the city.

“Even though we have an amazing budding dining scene, we also have areas where we see food insecurity, too,” Wentz said. “Being able to equip those organizations with what they need to combat that is something that we’re really proud of for this week.”

Short echoed this proud sentiment from the week, noting the power in numbers of participation.

“I pride myself in spending black all the time,” Short said. “Not just black restaurant week.”

Lee also often spends black, outside of RBRE. She said her family attended Southern Kitchen Mouth of the South every Sunday for their fried cabbage, seafood platters and meatloaf. Aside from Boogaloo’s, Lee said that this was her favorite black restaurant in Richmond, noting the special vibe that Boogaloo’s had and the fact that they had taken a chance on an up-and-coming event planner.

Participants in the week’s RBRE activities also attended events such as “Art for the Soul,” which hosted 30 black visual artists showcasing and selling their work; “Diaspora,” which highlighed different flavors of countries where black people come from; Cocktails + Zumba at the Urban Hang Suite; and the celebrated Brunch Trolley, which allowed participants to ride to three different restaurants on a trolley.

Participants such as Short credited the founders for the success of the week.

“The organizers were engaging and totally invested in the experience and success of the restaurant owners. It was just amazing,” she said. “They want to help establish a network for black restaurant owners and realize the power of their spending, as well as what they bring to the culinary scene in Richmond.”

Among the 28 participants, there are quite a few diamonds in the rough to try out if you missed the RBRE, including Thirst Bistro, Maple Bourbon, Jackie’s on Laburnum and LBJ’s Soul Food Fusion. The full list of participants is available at RBRE’s website; we challenge you to try them all.

Photos by Courtney Jones

Sydney Lake

Sydney Lake

Sydney Lake is a writer at RVA Magazine. Telling stories in a meaningful way is her deepest love, and writing is her trade of choice. She also loves good food, old music and passionate people. Think pimento cheese biscuits with a side of Steve Miller Band.

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