by: John Haddad, photos by: Danny Spry
Breakfast choices on the run in Virginia’s capital are either a latte and mass-produced scone from Starbucks or a biscuit and bad cup of coffee from a fast-food joint. Rarely do you see – or get — a hot meal to start the day, and certainly not a quick one.
Enter the Empress, the warm and homey restaurant that threw open its doors on Richmond’s Broad Street just 18 months ago.
“We wanted to provide folks with a decent hot meal in a hurry,” explains Owner/Chef Carly Herring. Her Five-Minute Menu offers a wide variety of from-scratch goodies, from scones and biscuits to eggs and “loaded hash browns”– served with sour cream, manchego cheese, tomatoes and oregano. Wash it down with one of Richmond’s best cups of coffee from the independent family-owned roastery Blanchard’s, a mainstay at some of Richmond’s finest restaurants. Baked goods and coffee are also available for take-out if you can’t fit an extra five minutes into your routine.
It’s not just breakfast. The Empress – distinguished by its red awning – serves lunch and a dinner of small plates and stays open late for dessert. And it caters to some of the tougher palates in the business – vegans, vegetarians, and those who avoid gluten – while satiating omnivores (and locavores) at the same time.
Many restaurants make sourcing decisions based on price and convenience. Herring takes a different road, driven by responsibility and a focus on quality. “I like to know where my food is coming from- there’s no reason that tomatoes should be tainted with salmonella — I need to be confident with the quality of what I serve.”
Many of The Empress’ ingredients come from Charlottesville’s Cavalier Produce, a locally owned and operated company that prides itself in sourcing the best produce grown in Central Virginia. Cavalier Produce in turn works with the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, a nonprofit organization that provides over 50 small farms with a distribution network.
Herring also sources from local Richmond growers. Blackberries that made their way into summer desserts came from just a mile down the road, and greens travel just a few miles from Chris Vaughan’s Cabbage Hill Farm. The Empress also maintains a garden and compost operation in the back of the restaurant, providing its customers with the freshest of herbs and local farmers with fresh compost. It’s a perfect circle. Herring is able to source local food and keep her prices reasonable partly because she makes most everything from scratch – even curing her own salmon in-house – and through portion control. It’s refreshing to walk out of The Empress after a multi-course meal, sated but not stuffed.
A Customizable Menu
The Empress makes great effort to accommodate its customers. Menu items are tagged as gluten-free or gluten-free optional, vegetarian or vegan, dairy-free or optional dairy-free. Herring, who has Celiac disease, puts her cooking talents to good use, giving patrons food they can safely eat without compromising the integrity of her dishes.
The Empress’ menu evolves with the changing seasons. This fall Herring added acorn squash stuffed with toasted oats, cranberry chutney, fava beans and grilled homemade paneer cheese; charbroiled scallops with roasted spaghetti squash and spicy pumpkin broth; grilled petit filet with gorgonzola and port compound butter, spicy red potatoes and smoked baby carrots; pan-seared rib eye with mashed sweet potatoes, spinach, demi-glace and pink peppercorns and sea salt.
Originally from Hampton, Va., Herring moved to Richmond to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, working her way up in a variety of restaurants to support herself. Before long, her job became an avocation: feeding people had become her passion. She enrolled in the J. Sargeant Reynolds culinary program, and was graduated with a minor in pastry.
While she honed her skills in Richmond’s restaurants, including Europa and The Berkeley Hotel, she dreamed of opening her own restaurant. She knew what she wanted to create, partly from what she didn’t like about the industry. Her premise is simple: casual dining with well prepared, seasonal food from local sources at a reasonable price. Now Herring and Barlow are able to give all their guests the royal treatment.
2043 West Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220
John Haddad is obsessed with food: growing it, cooking it, eating it, and writing about it. Marketing guy by day and writer and photographer by night, he is also the Vice Chair of Slow Food RVA and Chair of Know Your Veggies. Find him at www.epicuriousity.net @Epicuriousity on Twitter.