Richmond, The capital city of Virginia, seems more like a home town with benefits, if you happen to be gay or lean in that direction.
Richmond is growing, and glowing, as a lively vacation spot, a retirement destination, or simply an escape from the hassle of larger cities.
Find the city’s chill vibe embodied in Carytown, the hipster center of Richmond. Walking along its main thoroughfare, make a stop at Mongrel (#2924 West Cary St. mongrelrva. com), flying its rainbow flag. Inside there’s bit of everything you don’t need but must have, like naughty-message potholders and torso candles.
Move along to Bygones at #2916 (Bygonesvintage.com) where the front of the shop is devoted to women’s or trans women’s merch, and the back a mixed-bag emporium for men’s vintage items like old flasks, rings, and cufflinks. There are also “vintage” items, like pastel linen jackets in many sizes, lined up and waiting for a lawn party here or on Fire Island.
For a bit of literary culture, head to Shelf Life (shelflifebooksrva.com) a few doors away at #2913. The answer to the question, “Which is the LGBTQ section?” gets a laugh and “It’s the whole bookstore!” and browsing and maybe flirting is encouraged.
A few more steps lead to taking a break at Lolita’s at #2929 (lolitasrichmond.com) for a beer or a fancy lemonade. Nothing fancy here otherwise, indoors or out. If you’re lucky, however, Daniel will take your order. He’s sweet, Asian, and looks great in his ball cap. The menu includes tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and they all come in pairs.
Also along this street, find Bev’s homemade New England style ice cream at #2911 (Bevshomemadeicecream.com). If the usual vanilla/chocolate/strawberry flavors are too tame, try her exclusive Espresso Oreo.
One of the must-sees in Richmond, whether or not you’re a museum freak, is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (200 West Arthur Ashe Boulevard, vmfa.museum). It’s open 365 days a year and admission is free. A large white head, an arresting sculpture named “Chloe” by Jaume Plensa, greets you in front so you can’t miss it. This museum has world-class exhibitions and features fine art from all the ages and corners of the world. It was built in 1936 and after four renovations (with an expansion on the horizon) looks as modern as if it were built yesterday.
The spacious galleries include photography, decorative, Native American, and African American art, as well as the contemporary artists we know and sometimes love: Warhol, Twombley, Calder and Pollock, as well as changing exhibits, rare books, audio-visuals, and a café; in other words, this is everything everywhere all at once.
The museum’s highlight and most revered exhibit is the Fabergé presentation. Second in the world only to the one on its home turf in St. Petersburg, Russia, it’s a show-stopper. Even if you’ve lived your life without thinking even once about fancy eggs, take a moment to examine their colorful porcelain shells, jewel-encrusted decorations, and masterful, delicate workmanship. Some open to reveal tiny treasures inside. There are five Imperial eggs here and there is a reason they are worth millions, targets of thieves, and treasured by many.
An egg was sold in 2007 at Christie’s for $18.5 million, to illustrate how valuable these items have become. This exhibit, with its 200 objects, also includes the history of the Fabergé family, originally French Huguenots. Their persecution in France resulted in their ultimate settling in Russia, where Gustav Fabergé began the company in 1846. Other items made in the factory are surprising: In addition to miniature eggs, there are small picture frames, trinkets, drinking vessels, salt and pepper shakers, and a beer stein!
Nearby, stroll through the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (428 Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Virginiahistory.org). In addition to the artifacts of the state’s life story, fashions, oddities, myths, landscapes, and so on, there is an LGBTQ exhibit. It tracks the acceptance of marriage equality, the struggle that ends on a happy note, with images of the marriage of Lindsey Oliver and Nicole Pries in 2014. Here are items of their clothing and jewelry as well as photographs of the pair at their wedding. Also as evidence of the state’s changing attitudes are a pussy hat in rainbow colors and the state’s motto updated from “Virginia is for Lovers” to the bumper sticker: “Virginia is for ALL Lovers.”
Another dip into Richmond’s history is a walk (or a drive) through the Hollywood Cemetery (412 S. Cherry St. Hollywoodcemetery.org). There are no dead movie heroes at this graveyard, which is named not for that city in California but for its lush trees. From the parking lot to the cemetery’s pinnacle is a parklike 3.25 verdant miles that lead to the gravesites of presidents Tyler and Monroe, called the Presidents Circle, with the best view in the city of the James River.
Along the pathway are the burial plots of Virginia heroes and local citizens, among them Lewis Ginter, a financier, whose mausoleum is among the grandest, with its Tiffany windows and elaborate architectural details that include a door made of bronze. Never married and yes, he was thought to be gay. In case you choose to leave flowers here, they must be fresh, not fake, and even the fresh ones get removed when they pass their prime. It’s a pristine environment, and an interesting hiking option, although the hike or bike trails along the James River shores are more popular.
Time for dinner? L’Opossum (626 China St. lopossum.com) is tops. David Shannon, its owner and chef, has turned a restaurant with a gray, bland exterior into a dream. Inside, Benjamin Moore’s classic burgundy walls, art collected from garage sales and dimmed globe lights create a theatre set for five star dining. His signature dish sounds outlandish but just try it: escargot with a ham biscuit? Terrific. The beet vichyssoise is pink and luscious. It’s all so good here that Michelin will come knocking in no time.
The Roosevelt (623 North 25th St. rooseveltrva.com) restaurant is nice too. With its tin-tile ceiling, no-tablecloth simplicity, it’s a neighborhood-y place with a down-home menu, including a mushroom entrée that’s vegetarian and a side of cornbread with maple butter that isn’t, but it is good. You might feel like washing dinner down with a Seersucker (white rum, cinnamon bark syrup, and lemon juice), a traditional southern drink, and a crowd pleaser.
Bar Solita (123 Broad St. barsolita.com) is a large space with a looooong menu and a cute host, Darrel. It’s a cool place with street-level windows, two floors and some outdoor seating. It offers tapas choices, many varieties of brick-oven pizzas, and diners that don’t believe in dressing up. Many really go for the Solita Mule, a mix of ginger beer and vodka, even if they’ve just stopped by for a snack. It’s that casual here.
It happens to also be across the street from the Quirk Hotel (201 West Broad St. Quirkhotels.com), which might be the hotel made to order for the LGBTQ sensibility. It has a pink lobby (imagine Randy Rainbow’s eyeglass frames), cozy white banquettes, kitschy accessories, a restaurant, and a rooftop bar. There you get a view as far as your eyesight will take you and the scene is young, fun and “Is this your first time here?” friendly.
If you’re looking for a gay bar, consider Bar Code (6 East Grace Street. barcodedowntown.com). It’s owned by Brian Harris, who makes it clear that this space is proud of its diverse clientele. The corporation under which it operates was named Matthew Enterprises in honor of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man tortured and murdered in 1998 in Wyoming, and it continues to annually support the Matthew Shepard Foundation (matthewshepard.org).
Sam Miller’s (1210 E.Cary St. sammillers.com) has been around since 19th century and walking in you might think nothing has changed since Woodrow Wilson was president. Tile floors, brick walls, retro wood chairs, just like yesterday. Its general manager, Ken Wall, makes this an unofficial gay bar, but officially it’s an oyster restaurant/bar and great for lunch.
When you want to party, head to Babe’s (3166 W. Cary St. instagram.com/babesrva). It’s a legendary Lesbian bar, been there forty years, and nowadays everyone’s welcome. Karaoke some nights, open mike other nights, and loud music usually. Closed Mondays.
For everyone who likes to shop, head to the West End Antiques Mall (2004 Staples Mill Rd. westendantiquemall.com), It looks as if 250 dealers cleaned out the closets of their grandmothers, great grandmothers, and all their aunties, and within its 53,000 square feet affixed price tags to every item. You can spend an hour or a week and find many a treasure here, anything from a penguin garden statue to a porcelain tureen to Princess Diana in a frame. There’s some mid-century stuff too. Next door check out the works of local artists at the Crossroads Art Center at #2015 (crossroadsartcenter.com). Some serious local talent is on display here, many by women, quite a few affordable.
Across the river you’ll find The Nest (3404 Semmes Ave. rvaNest.com), and be sure to make a stop here. This is one of the ten best antique and art shops in the state, carefully curated by Mark Robertson and Marcelo Outeiro, the married couple who own it and who have four good eyes and exceptional taste. The shop includes “no-Picasso paintings” and the prices range from $2 to $8,000. Marcelo says, “Everybody who walks in can buy something.”
Right next door is Laura Lee’s at #3410 (lauraleesrva.com) a charming spot for brunch, with an outdoor patio. The challah French toast is an original, topped with sweet apple slices and there’s praise for the generous Caesar salad too.
You can not leave Richmond without making a reservation (a must) for Godfrey’s Legendary Drag Brunch (308 East Grace Street. godfreysva.com). It’s a gay bar at night, but on weekends inside it’s all bumps, many grinds, and loud music, as the beauties hit the runway. Their heels are high and so are many patrons; the server who brings your drinks is known as the Water Bitch, and then the fun begins. Your optional fives or tens get changed for singles you wave like pennants to get the ladies to sashay to your table.
Their outfits are wicked alluring. Take out your iPhone for videos and meet gorgeous Celestia Cox, the rollicking emcee, who’s been here for ten years. The brunch is included in the $30 admission, but drinks are extra. Two shows Saturday and two Sunday.
Nearby on a recent Sunday a young gay pair from South Carolina, here for a visit, were getting a kick out of the drag scene. James was the spokesperson: “Everything is here,” he said, referring to the city, as his companion nodded agreement
“Are you two together?” asked Celestia, mic in hand. “No,” said James’s companion, slightly embarrassed. “You will be!” she responded and the crowd roared.
The pair looked at each other and smiled as the show went on.