I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Richmond has a significant body of water running through it. I believe it’s called the James River and, apparently, it’s pretty popular.
Every spring, Monday morning office chatter quickly changes to tales of river-based weekend adventures. Stories encompass kayaking, fishing and simply sitting on the shore drinking a cold beer.
It’s not like everyone is just now realizing the James’ entertainment potential, so why has it taken so long for local restaurants to figure out people might actually frequent, nay, freak out over waterfront-dining options?
Take the fall 2009 debut of The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, for example. From Day One, crowds clamored to take in its unparalleled views of the river and city skyline, and they haven’t waned since.
I have no idea why neighboring eateries didn’t pop up within days, but thanks to Bob Cox, owner of popular Fan District spots Metro Grill and Curbside Cafe, we can now add Conch Republic to Richmond’s list of waterfront destinations.
Unlike its more upscale neighbor, The Boathouse, Conch Republic slows things down with an easygoing Key West-themed vibe, a fish house-style menu dotted with Cajun influences and a wraparound deck perfect for drinking the night away in anything from sundresses to cargo shorts.
Concrete floors, garage door-style walls and stainless-steel patio furniture envelope two bar areas and an open dining room, creating a sun-soaked environment that takes laid-back to a whole new level.
Not surprisingly, the menu is heavily seafood, but options stray toward the casual side of things. Sandwiches include shrimp, oyster or crab po’ boys ($11.95) and a fried gator wrap with Buffalo sauce ($9.95). Entrees range from char-grilled shrimp skewers ($15.95) served over dirty rice to sauteed pork medallions with jalapeno-cheese grits ($14.95).
I’ve been a handful of times. As with any new restaurant, I’ve experienced inconsistencies in food and service. However, Conch Republic has strong bones and dedicated managers who I believe will smooth out the kinks in no time.
I recommend starting with the shrimp dip ($8.95), a cream cheese-based concoction of onions, bell peppers and baby shrimp topped with a gooey smothering of cheese. Served with soft, grilled pita, it’s a wonderfully rich treat. Still, the kitchen could be more generous with the shrimp.
I wouldn’t have thought to order a Cuban sandwich here, but during a recent visit, my friend chose the 90 Miles South ($9.95), named after the approximate distance between Key West and Cuba. A large pressed baguette held smoky pulled pork and the traditional pickles, ham and Swiss, but the addition of a super tangy Dijon mustard made Conch’s version shine.
Pan-seared mahi — the fish of the day ($17.95) during the same visit — arrived topped with a spicy mango salsa chock full of jalapeno, red onion and red pepper, a skillfully zesty balance that didn’t overwhelm the fish.
Conch Key Grouper ($18.95) topped with crabmeat and jalapeno-mango sauce tasted decent but was overcooked, leaving it on the dry side. Accompanying plantain “chips” were pleasantly sweet but bordered on the texture of baby food.
On a previous visit, mahi, cheese, grilled corn and creamy chipotle sauce in fish tacos ($10.95) created a wonderful mesh of flavors, but the portion was laughably small. Yet during another visit, the woman beside me received the same soft tortillas overflowing with morsels of fish.
Service is also inconsistent. One patio server didn’t know the menu and was inattentive, but inside another woman rattled off the specials with robotic precision and didn’t let my wine glass dip below half full.
Regardless of these inconsistencies, there’s still a go-with-the-flow vibe at Conch Republic I find undeniably appealing. I look forward to lounging on the patio and working my way through the rest of the menu. Just don’t make fun of the sunglass tan I’m sure to be sporting by summer’s end.