FOOD- THE DISH- Gastropub hubbub: Journos 'flee' to Lexington

Feature story: some local journalists plan to turn this cozy spot into The Ren Hen, Lexington's first "gastropub." 


What happens when a bunch of brainiacs decide to open a restaurant? They're about to find out in Lexington.

"I figured race horses and Broadway plays were too predictable as ways to lose vast sums of money, so the restaurant biz it is," writes John Blackburn, founding editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors, former journalist for C-Ville Weekly in the early days, son of UVA admissions dean John A. Blackburn, and soon-to-be proprietor of The Ren Hen, a "gastropub" in the heart of downtown Lexington.

"Seriously," he adds, "I think this has real legs... otherwise I wouldn't go anywhere near the restaurant business."

Sometime in July, Blackburn plans to introduce Lexingtonians to the British dining phenomenon on display here at Zinc and Horse & Hound, which he describes as "young chefs fleeing the big 5-star kitchens to take pub leases out in the hinterlands and cook simple, local food in a really comfortable atmosphere.

"One of my models for an ideal gastropub is The Virginian back in its Golden Age, say, 1980 to 1991," Blackburn says. "It was a place where you could have a conversation in a comfortably woody environment and eat delicious, simple food–- while wearing the tuxedo you slept in last night."

Blackburn says he and several partners, including the equally brainy Stephanie Wilkinson, also a former C-Ville writer, and cofounder of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, are in the process of purchasing a 100-plus year-old former chapel in downtown Lexington. "It's an absolutely gorgeous space with a huge vaulted ceiling and elaborate Gothic gingerbread trim details," says Blackburn.

Blackburn admits his only experience in the restaurant business was working the brunch shift at the Blue Moon Dinner in the late 1980s, but that's why he says he's looking for a talented chef willing to "flee the big 5-star kitchens" of Charlottesville.

"I'm hoping to identify and hire a chef in the next five months to take this on and make it her/his baby," he says. "In other words, we're looking for somebody who wants more than just a job."

If you're interested, email Blackburn at [email protected]. 

Eureka Topeka!

Here's some news to get meat lovers salivating– soon we'll have our own Topeka's Steakhouse N' Saloon, a Richmond staple since 1994. Owner Phil Cornett tells Dish he plans to open another addition to his small chain at Peter Jefferson Place on Pantops, right in front of the Hilton Garden Suites. 

The chain restaurant has grown slowly, says Cornett, adding only three new venues in Virginia, because "We build our improvements and learning into every new restaurant."

Indeed, Topeka's has a reputation for friendly service, beefy salads (big, not meat-powered), something for everyone on the menu, a great kid's menu, and– like Five Guys– buckets of salted peanuts in their shells to munch on while you wait.  

So theoretically, the new Charlottesville location could be the smartest Topeka's in Virginia!

Besides aging and cutting their own beef "to retain as much of the natural juices as possible," Cornett says they've started something called a "butcher shop concept." Basically, you can order Topeka cut slabs of raw meat to go. 

"It's a really cool little added thing for our customers," says Cornett. "For customers who are confident in their grilling skills, I should say."

Cornett says construction of the restaurant has already begun and is slated to take about three months. 

"We should be open by late May," he predicts.

Coffee justice at the Lake

The folks out in Lake Monticello have a new coffee shop– Just Java opened its doors last week in the Piedmont Village shopping center outside gate five, across the street from the rescue squad and next to Domino's Pizza. 

"We'll be opening with the basic coffee lineup, made with Shenandoah Joe's coffee, and we're in the process of finding some local bakers to supply the breakfast selection," says manager Eric Hauser. "The location has ample seating, free wi-fi, and an outside seating area when weather permits."  

Hauser says Just Java is the brainchild of Justin Butler, former general manager of Wild Wings. He also says the shop will strive to be socially responsible and community friendly, using free trade coffee and locally grown products, and displaying the work of local artists.

"The 'Just' in the name is derived from justice," says Hauser, "and it will be a focal point as we grow and become part of the community."

Dang, when did restaurateurs get so idealistic?