Spinning Plates

Interesting conversation happening on Twitter this morning around Richmond’s never-that-successful-yet-comfortable-neighborhood-spot Popkin Tavern. It is, apparently, shutting down soon, to be replaced by a new venture from a celebrity chef. Taber Bain, a Jackson Ward resident (and very funny dude on Twitter), lamented the impending loss of a more affordable watering hole within close walking distance, and sparked some commentary that got me thinking:

I think we see two conflicting forces at work here, and I believe they’ll have to reconcile if a recently revitalizing neighborhood is to thrive in the long term. On one hand, we have yet another signal that Richmond is a dining destination. And it’s near (but not technically in) Jackson Ward again. I don’t really care about the celebrity factor so much, but it’s good for our city when somebody noteworthy thinks it’s a worthwhile investment to open up shop with his main brand.

On the other hand, who are all these upscale restaurants in the Jackson Ward/”gallery district” area serving? Are they for largly upper-middle-class white folks coming in from the suburbs or wealthier city neighborhoods? Are they for young professional residents of the surrounding area? Are they for the long term residents of Jackson Ward that have lived there since before it became a “revitalizing” neighborhood? Not everybody in Jackson Ward can afford to grab a beer at Comfort or Bistro 27. Heck, I’m sure there are folks in Jackson Ward who would consider Popkin Tavern pricey.

The practical side of me sees a clear reason for restaurants of all sorts moving in to Jackson Ward and vicinity: it’s still gotta be cheap real estate compared to hotter spots like Shockoe Slip or Carytown. But every upscale restaurant that stakes its claim has an impact on property value. If we fill a district with upscale dining, can a more casual, neighborhood-centric spot move in, let alone survive? And what about the residents? Will their rents increase, pricing them out of the neighborhood they chose (or not) before trendy restaurants moved in?

Some of this sounds similar to well-worn conversations around gentrification and its effects on a neighborhood’s character, and I’m not trying to retread any of that. What I’m trying to reconcile, in my mind, is how we welcome new business that’s good for the city as a whole while also providing spots for people of a particular locale. I’m left wondering: what’s keeping a casual neighborhood restaurant from opening/staying open in Jackson Ward (or the surrounding area)?

I’m neither a neighborhood historian nor Jackson Ward resident, so I’m sure there are things for which I’m not accounting and perhaps some restaurants I’m overlooking. I’d love to be corrected and at least continue discussing this tension in the dining scene.

One thought on “Spinning Plates

  1. I love the "Frightened Ox Breast" comment. Too funny and too true. One of the things I often find myself wanting more of, is good solid sandwiches that aren’t part of a 50.00 dollar meal.

    I certainly think too though that parking access and parking cost along that stretch of road plays a role. If I’m going out for a fancy meal at Comfort the added expense and effort seems relatively small. If I’m just look to chill out and knock down a couple of beers I’ll just go elsewhere, after all I want that parking money for another beer.

    I did just read though another article discussing how many companies are catering to the wealthy or the poor and are backing off mid range offerings due to low sales. While gentrification and the problems that come with it are a concern, they’re localized and are really cause due to scarcity. The rapidly growing gap between wealthy and "the rest" is of monumental concern because it is simply unsustainable and I don’t believed so much tied to population.

    I agree though with your post, definitely some interesting conversation to be had. I know when I was in Europe there is more general attention to quality and food and hence why McDonald’s is actually slowing growth wise right now in the U.S.. People want to eat high quality, high health foods but financial inequality is such that we can’t keep pace with Europe. Another funny bit is that we’re all so attracted to aesthetically appealing restaurants these days. I love a hole in the wall if it’s clean and has good food, but aesthetics seems to be of perhaps greater concern for alot of people. That said, that has nothing to do with Popkin, which was actually quite nice, if not a bit too big and spread out.

    I am sad to see it go though, the few times I went I was generally impressed and enjoyed myself. Like I said though, it was a hassle to park. Say thanks to the city government for that.

    Unfocused ranting complete.

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