Back in the '90s, I knew a couple who were interior designers in Manhattan but kept a weekend house in Richmond, Va., a weekend house that was notable enough for its cosmopolitan Southern style that it was featured in various glossy magazines. At first, the idea had seemed incongruous, but a recent return to Richmond reminded me how easily one succumbs to the River City's charms.
During the past few years, the former capital of the Confederacy has become a beacon of enlightenment in the South, as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam suggested in September when addressing thousands of LGBTQ people and their friends and family at Richmond's annual VA PrideFest.
"We are proud in Richmond and proud in Virginia to be progressive," declaimed Northam. "We're innovative, and most importantly, we're inclusive."
In alluding to Richmond's rebirth as a bucket-list destination, Northam corroborated a consensus that has been growing among millennials and media who have deemed Richmond buzzworthy, not only for its reborn Southern comfort cuisine but for its burgeoning arts and design scene. As Andrew Chasen, founder of Chasen Galleries, remarked, "Virginia Commonwealth University has fostered a diverse community; it's one of the best in the arts, which brings in more LGBTQ youth. And these young people are willing to challenge old stereotypes."
During VA Pride week, Chasen hosted a cocktail reception at his Museum District gallery that was attended by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who received a VA Pride painting by LGBTQ artist Jumper Maybach that will greet visitors at Stoney's downtown office, just across the street from Capitol Square.
"We have the most LGBTQ-supportive mayor in our history," said James Millner, VA Pride president, "and he has made it abundantly clear that Richmond is a safe and welcoming city for LGBTQ people."
Diversity has been a hallmark of Virginia legislative history since the 1786 adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which established both freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and state.
The forerunner to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, the statute was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly at the Virginia State Capitol, the magnificent Palladian structure designed by Thomas Jefferson, which is visible from nearly every floor of the 19-story Omni Richmond that towers over the historical neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the Virginia State Capitol glistens as white as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, for which it has been a stand-in in various Hollywood films.
For a perspective on the diversity of 21st-century Richmond, a walking tour through Carytown provides insight into the emergence of LGBTQ Richmond. Notable for its alternative vibe, the culturally vibrant neighborhood is replete with vintage boutiques and quirky coffee shops alongside art deco buildings and historical movie palaces, such as the Byrd Theatre with its Wurlitzer organ.
Carytown's LGBTQ bars feature beers from Richmond's numerous craft breweries, including the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, which is located in the city's erstwhile German brewing district. Hardywood operates a 20-barrel brewhouse and taproom where its "Brew With Purpose" mission is made manifest with Tropic Like It's Hot, the official beer of VA Pride. Tart on the tongue, the sour ale displays notes of passion fruit and pineapple — and a brilliant magenta hue created by butterfly pea blossoms.
As a dinner complement to such a resplendent brew, few locales are better suited than David Shannon's extraordinary restaurant L'Opossum. Honored as Southern Living's 2018 Restaurant of the Year, the Oregon Hill restaurant is a remarkable testament to Richmond's culinary heritage as filtered through the fuchsia-hued imagination of Shannon, an impresario who wears his Tom of Finland chef's whites with equal parts playful panache and gastronomic savoir-faire.
One of Shannon's most fanciful (and delectable) creations is his Faberge Egg Bedazzled With Caviar, a gustatory homage to the nation's largest collection of Faberge imperial Easter eggs, which are held at Richmond's Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Open 365 days a year and with no admission charge, the museum dates to 1936, with a fascinating backstory about the patron and the bequest of the House of Faberge collection that comprises about 200 objects attributed to the Russian czars' favored jewelers. The museum's recent $150 million expansion has transformed its nearly 14-acre campus, which now includes a sculpture garden with landscaped lawn, reflecting pool and waterfall.
Flanking the Museum District is a former industrial area known as Scott's Addition, which has become one of Richmond's hottest neighborhoods thanks to an infusion of breweries and distilleries as well as restaurants such as the Alpine-fueled Brenner Pass and local smokehouse favorite Lunch/Supper. Predating the neighborhood's trendiness, the Richmond Triangle Players have been offering LGBTQ theater to audiences for 25 years.
According to Bill Harrison, executive director of Diversity Richmond, "The city leadership has openly embraced the LGBTQ community, from the mayor's office to city council to the police departments, [and] Richmond Region Tourism's campaign, OutRVA, was endorsed by our governor."
One consequence of Richmond's LGBTQ outreach has been a boomerang generation of young people who have returned to the city after living in other metropolitan areas.
After years in New York, Hardywood marketing manager Matt Shofner returned to Richmond in 2011. Shofner spoke of Richmond's "electric sense of community" alongside Equality Virginia's Equality Means Business program for local businesses that "pledges to provide equal opportunities and safe spaces for the LGBTQ community." Each summer, Hardywood celebrates marriage equality with its Love on Tap party that attracts thousands to the craft brewery's compound. More than ever before, the state's tourism slogan, "Virginia Is for Lovers," rings true in Richmond.