Ah, summer. The time of year everyone’s mind turns to sun and fun. When half the town loads up the car to head for the nearest beach to enjoy a little relaxation and listen to the waves while cracking open a beer, or four, on the beach.
We may not be a beach town, but we definitely enjoy the same sensibility. Those of us who’d rather stick close to home than pack-up for more coastal climates find the James River an enjoyable substitute for ocean waves.
Conch Republic, the newest eatery to open in Rocketts Landing, attempts to bring beach-town sensibilities to a river-front setting. Taking inspiration from the Florida Keys, Conch Republic is packing them in with a stunning view of the James and a lazy beach vibe. If the neighboring Boathouse is for upscale partiers, then Conch Republic is going for the Jimmy Buffett crowd.
If the idea of catching a breeze on the riverside patio while listening to a little Bob Marley entices you, Conch Republic could be right up your alley. But, keep in mind that the focus here is on attitude, not culinary creations. The food on our visit was serviceable and quite tasty, but nothing that will knock your socks off. But the food matches the atmosphere—no frills—but enough to satisfy an appetite while taking in the views or a cover band.
While the interior is open and airy, featuring two bars, one with a tiki theme, the real pleasure here is the outdoor dining. We snagged a table overlooking Rocketts Landing marina on a gorgeous afternoon. The crowd ranged from business people to couples getting a head start on the weekend. Our boat-shoe and polo-clad server went over the beer options, including a few craft options such as Kona Longboard Lager, while we settled on the conch fritters appetizer ($11.95).
The fritters boasted a cornmeal filling with a nice Cajun seasoning and chunks of onions and peppers. While the doughy fritters hit the right note with spices, we would have enjoyed a little more conch to add a nice briny flavor, especially for the price.
Entrees include low-country favorites like jambalaya and snapper sautéed in mango butter and a variety of summery salads.
The sandwich offerings expand at lunch time and we opted for one of the lunch specials, the Island Club ($10.95). A typical triple-decker club with Virginia ham, turkey, bacon and lettuce and tomato on toasted white bread was jazzed up with the addition of grilled pineapple and guava aioli. The ham was thickly sliced and nicely salty, which created a great combination with the sweet sliced pineapple. While the portion was quite large and the sandwich was a cut above the typical club, the price seemed a bit high for a club sandwich.
Jon enjoyed the Hemingway sandwich ($11.95), a toasted baguette of shaved strip steak with peppers, onions and melted Swiss, served with chipotle vinaigrette. The large sandwich was enhanced with an ample dose of the vinaigrette and the steak was nicely cooked to the requested medium. Like much of what we ate, it was better than the usual chain-style bar food, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Each sandwich comes with a choice of side, ranging from the usual fries and collard greens to fried plantains and jalapeno corn bread. We enjoyed the gator chili as an interesting alternative to fries, though the gator did not add much in terms of a different flavor. With a good blend of spiciness, the chili gave an interesting kick to the sandwich menu. Red beans and rice were a little on the soggy side, but had a nice smoky flavor.
Conch Republic is not likely to gain a lot of love from serious foodies, but anyone who likes to kick back and enjoy the view will find a lot to like. The prices are a little steep. Expect to pay a bit more for the view and atmosphere. It will be interesting to see if it can still pack them in when the weather gets cooler. But, if you’re looking for pleasant everyman food with a spectacular location and efficient service, a visit to Conch Republic will satisfy your urge for coastal grub.