The National by Corinne Whiting
When you’re a traveler who’s inclined to ration funds and vacation leave for passport-dependent voyages, it’s easy to forget there are adventures to be found closer to home. So a couple Fridays back, a few friends and I bid farewell to our D.C. offices a wee bit early and joined the masses traveling south down I-95. (Fortunately we’d come prepared for gridlock, chock full of patience and playlists.) Our mini-vacation destination? Richmond, incidentally the state capital located at the fall line of the James River in Virginia’s Piedmont region. But of interest to us that evening? A show by those lovable North Carolinian folk rockers, The Avett Brothers.
We whizzed into town excited to begin our less than-24-hour southern tour. Best not to dwell on details of actual travel times (roughly double our estimate) and revamped dinner plans (we’d dreamed of buttery Southern goodness at Comfort, yet made do with hurried turkey clubs in an ambiance-less Marriott dining room). But no matter, the slow-as-molasses waiter was friendly, and the Turning Leaf he poured sufficiently chilled. We instantly settled into the refreshing change of scene–so few suits, so many beards!–and headed two blocks down Broad Street to The National.
The historic National theater, reminiscent of Falls Church’s State Theatre, opened with much fanfare in 1923 as the newest addition to the then-thriving Richmond theater scene. Inside this Italian Renaissance Revival space, described by one reviewer as “handsome, stately, adorned but not ornate…,” acts ranged from vaudeville performers and artists like Orson Welles to silent movies, which were accompanied by musicians in the orchestra pit below (the state’s largest). The theater sat up to 1,114 spectators, including those in four second-level boxes that remain intact today. The adored venue was saved from a wrecking ball in 1989 by the Historic Richmond Foundation. These days the ground floor, which gradually slopes for easy stage viewing over neighbors’ heads, is reserved for standing space, and concert goers with balcony tickets sit above. Seven full bars serve thirsty patrons, while tattooed bouncers stand guard around the perimeter.
Avett Brothers by Corinne Whiting
Showtime arrived, and the folksy, four-man ensemble delivered a rocking show. The sweet sounds of banjo, bass, guitar, cello and soulful human harmony echoed into the spacious, energized hall. The appreciative crowd subtlety grooved throughout the set, often adding their own voices to refrains, while soaking in the rustic, emotive tunes that have been defined as “indie roots,” “folk punk” and “grungegrass,” to name a few. Any way you label it, I found The Avett Brothers to be enjoyably in sync with the evening’s vibe.
After the Avetts left the stage, we flagged down a taxi (a surprisingly challenging feat) and, with a sense of duty to maximize our few waking Richmond hours, headed to the district known as The Fan. Popular for its many family-owned restaurants and bars, this charming, tree-lined area got its nickname from a mid-2oth century Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial because of the spoke-like formation of its roads. The zone includes one of the longest existing stretches of Victorian architecture in the U.S.
After the sun sets, less-residential sections of The Fan bustle with young professionals, while elsewhere university preps brush shoulders with the shaggier, artsy set. We opted to sample the nightlife along W Main Street, in search of the perfect fit. Perhaps our ages were surfacing, but we found the music a bit too raucous at venue number one, Sticky Rice. This spot, a divey yet trendy sushi eatery-bar, has a slightly posher northern outpost that’s found popularity on DC’s H Street NE. We then settled into homey Helen’s, where inexpensive drinks and a lounge-like decor (wall sconces, chandeliers, cozy booths) made for chats as intimate as if chilling around the table of one’s (hip) grandmother’s kitchen. But the night was slipping away; time to move on.
Our third and final destination proved our favorite. At Avalon, a motorcycle out front marked the spot, cigarette smoke hung heavy in the dimly-lit room, and the drinks poured strong (could these oh-so-reasonable prices be real?). Crossing paths with familiar faces seemed inevitable in this neighborhood retreat…much to our surprise, even for out-of-towners like ourselves. As the bar shuttered its windows, we bid our unexpected run-ins and new-found bar mates adieu and, at long last, found a cab to deliver us home.
The next morning we set off on a brunch hunt, scouring the streets around our hotel for signs of life. As we rolled down a sleepy avenue where derelict buildings neighbored the occasional shop, quirky art gallery, quaint cafe or inviting diner (sadly, with “CLOSED” signs hanging in each window), we learned that in parts of Richmond, life still pauses on weekends. As refreshing as we found this dose of small-town Zen, our tummies were beginning to rumble. One fortuitous turn later landed us at Crossroads, a funky neighborhood coffee shop with neon bicycles and local artwork-adorned walls. We reveled in our sunny patio seat, an employee’s dog weaving between our legs, and tucked into overstuffed breakfast burritos, perfectly-crisped hash browns and revitalizing iced coffees. Should we ever move to Richmond, we declared, Crossroads would become our haunt.
Had there been more time, we would have hit up some typical Richmond must-sees—perhaps the State Capitol, the Edgar Allan Poe Museum or the site where Patrick Henry proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But for now, it was time to make a move. We vowed we’d return, and for more than just one sleep. So we hopped back in the car and fired up the trusty iTrip, bound for the big city up north. But no worries, after just 18 hours away, we were already speaking a bit slower and breathing a bit easier. The Avetts and their banjos serenaded us home.