The Alewife in Richmond Voted The South's Best New Restaurant 2020
It's not the kind of thing one might expect to see at a high-end seafood restaurant, but the version served at Alewife will make you wonder why it’s not part of every menu in the country.
Called the Siren’s Song, Alewife’s sampler comes on an extra-large platter littered with little bowls. The selections might change from day to day or even order to order. It started out as a way for chef and owner Lee Gregory to use up ingredients and minimize food waste, but it has become the perfect embodiment of what makes the place so special.
One night, your platter may include rockfish ribs, the tender meat of which is thickly breaded, fried, and crusted with aromatic za’atar. Another night, it’s mackerel tails, oily and singed on a yakitori. Maybe the invasive fish species snakehead, which gets roasted and basted with lemon and butter. Perhaps you’ve never tried snakehead or didn’t know you could get so much meat from just the tails and ribs of a fish, but now you can’t stop thinking about everything you just ate.
The restaurant selects the dishes for each Siren’s Song, but if there’s something on the menu you’re keen on trying, tell your server, and sure enough, a bowl of it will end up on your platter. On a recent night, Siren’s Songs were scattered across the dining room, where twinkling string lights glide across the ceiling. Inevitably, guests would lean over to catch a glimpse at neighboring tables’ selections, often striking up conversations that ended with, “I’ll trade you for a crab claw.”
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In the past few years, Richmond has quickly become a bona de foodie destination—a place for compelling fine dining (Longoven), superb sweet shops (Sub Rosa Bakery), and stylish late-night spots (GWARbar) to call home. Gregory, a South Carolina native, landed in Richmond in 1999 for a kitchen internship. He helped put the city on the map in 2011 when he became chef at the instantly popular restaurant The Roosevelt, a full-throated ode to the culinary diversity of the region (and a bold reminder that, yes, Richmond is part of the South).
A few years later, he met a chef named Dale Reitzer, who taught him about the waterways of Virginia and the Chesapeake and the sheer breadth of species available beyond just the popular ones like striped bass. That’s how Gregory dreamed up Alewife, which opened in 2018. He describes it as “a reflection of what could be Mid-Atlantic food through our lens,” with a menu of varied species, cross-cultural flavors, and parts of seafood (tails or ribs) that often get discarded. Here, Szechuan peppercorn-dusted oysters and scallops with carrot-miso butter feel at home alongside corn- meal biscuits and refried lentils. It’s a place that Gregory says exemplifies the growing diversity of Richmond’s population and foodways.
The restaurant, located in the historic Church Hill neighborhood, looks like a mix between a log cabin and a seafood shack, with the coziness of the former and the deeply relaxed vibes of the latter. Chairs might be mismatched, mirrors might hang at slightly different heights, but no one seems to mind. People aren’t crowding into Alewife night after night because of its intense polish; they’re coming because it’s a place to feel like part of an inclusive community and to eat unfussy food that makes you rethink what you thought you knew about Southern cooking.
“There is so much that defines us here in Richmond,” says Gregory—the large shipping and fishing industry, the robust waterways that have brought so many flavors and cooking styles in and out of the region. “We are now realizing that the best way to represent Virginia is to literally represent Virginia by buying and supporting locally and showcasing the state, whether it’s through the lens of German food or classic cooking,” he says.
He and his team are doing everything in their power to ensure those waterways are preserved for restaurants to come. In addition to educating people about lesser-known species and cuts, the staff recycles oyster shells to be returned to the Chesapeake Bay, and Gregory donates a portion of the restaurant’s proceeds toward efforts to research and restore the diverse ecosystems of the area.
“The idea of Alewife is to realize that we can sell the Mid-Atlantic and be who we need to be and that we should be proud of it,” Gregory says.
Priya Krishna is a food writer and author of the cookbook Indian-ish, cowritten with her mother.
alewiferva.com, 804-325-3426, 3120 East Marshall Street, Richmond, VA 23223