Opened: September 2016
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Owner: Kendra Feather
Average check: $38
Description: With a high-low menu philosophy, this new eatery dresses up pub fare with Southern and Asian flavors.
Kendra Feather had a very specific, albeit eclectic, vision in mind for her latest concept, which opened in Richmond’s Woodland Heights neighborhood last September. Named for her mother, Laura Lee’s was conceived as both a throwback to the 1970s and a reflection of Feather’s own present state.
“Each restaurant represents where I’m at in my life. I sometimes joke that [Laura Lee’s] is my feminist opus,” says the celebrated restaurateur, whose other properties include Ipanema Cafe, Roosevelt, and Garnett’s Cafe.
Indeed, the early days of women’s lib informed the overall tone of Laura Lee’s. During that period, women moved from apartment-hosted cocktail parties and hotel bars to singles-welcoming establishments nicknamed “fern bars” for their often plant-packed décor. “[It] was the first era in the ’60s and ’70s when women started going to bars,” Feather says. “The original incarnations were just friendly, neighborhood places where young single women who were in the workforce were going out for drinks.”
TGI Fridays was one of the earliest fern bars and although its atmosphere has evolved over the ensuing decades, Feather wanted to evoke that original tenor—if not the heavy greenery. Laura Lee’s does have a few plants dispersed around the restaurant, but perhaps more notable is the eclectic mix of art that fills the exposed-brick walls. Feather says she sources prints from Etsy and transfers them onto sound panels to mitigate ambient noise. In addition to the dining room and bar, the restaurant recently opened a garden area with bench seats and coffee tables.
The XX factor weaves into the libations, thanks to head bartender Kacie Shortridge, whom Feather brought onboard from Roosevelt. When Laura Lee’s opened in the thick of election season, the vodka-based Glass Ceiling was especially popular. Other cheekily named cocktails include Killer Queen (mezcal, crème de violette, lemon, and sparkling brut) and Fronds with Benefits, made with fennel-infused vodka, herbaceous cynar liqueur, lemon, grapefruit, sugar, and sparkling wine.
Although the cocktail menu was inspired by fern-bar staples, Feather says Laura Lee’s has toned down the sweetness that’s so characteristic of drinks like Long Island Iced Teas. For example, the Harvey Wallbanger (which Feather describes as an upscale screwdriver) takes the traditional recipe of orange juice, vodka, and the sweeter liqueur Galliano L’Autentico to a new level. At Laura Lee’s, the sweet original is tempered by rhubarb bitters and the Italian digestif Ramazzotti.
It’s no surprise that Laura Lee’s clientele skews female—by Feather’s own estimation, women account for 75 percent of business at any given time. Still, she emphasizes that it is a welcome place for all, including couples on dates, groups of friends, and young families. Feather knows firsthand the stress parents can experience when dining out.
“Half the problem with taking kids out to eat is just the anxiety the parents feel,” she says. “If we put everybody at ease, they all have a better time.”
To that end, the restaurant offers a kids’ menu with options like Grilled Ham and Cheese with french fries and snap peas and Fried Chicken with cheese grits and cheese and carrots. But, Feather says, the kitchen can still whip up something even simpler for the pickiest of eaters.
That same laidback mentality informs the whole Laura Lee’s experience. “The one theme throughout is high-low, which is slightly elevated but without being unattainable. … We also want to stay fairly inexpensive,” she says.
Chef Scott Lewis seconds this sentiment. He steers clear of pretension, never wanting to dissuade guests from visiting because they don’t understand dishes.
Although Lewis hails from Danville, Virginia, the menu does not hold tightly to Southern cuisine and incorporates some Asian flavors. Crispy chicken wings are tempered with ranch dressing and General Tso’s Sauce; the double cheeseburger is topped with American cheese, as well as kimchi mayo; and steamed mussels are fortified with pork belly, corn, jalapeños, and gochujang. Lewis’ wife is Korean, and his co-conspirator in the kitchen, Chef Mike Tam, is a Richmond native whose parents immigrated from China.
While some dishes are a constant on the menu, Lewis says, his team will play around with seasonal produce. “Autumn is my favorite time of year. You go to Charlottesville to pick apples and you get the squash and the pumpkins and all the gourds. It’s a fun time,” he says.
Laura Lee’s may be a newcomer, but it has already made a splash in Richmond. The restaurant scored three nominations for Richmond Magazine’s 2017 Elbys dining awards, including best new restaurant. Chef Lewis was a rising star nominee, and front-of-house manager Michael Smith won the “employee of the year” honor. Both are Roosevelt alums, proving Feather’s dream team is integral to the restaurant’s success.
“Everyone’s all friends and really happy to be together,” Feather says. “They work really well together. They’ve known each other for years”