Editor’s note: Because of COVID-19, in lieu of starred reviews, Times-Dispatch restaurant critic Justin Lo in his new column, “First Bite,” will be previewing some of the newer restaurants that have opened in and around Richmond.
The heart and soul of Helen Holmes’ Fulton Hill restaurant is her late grandmother Girlee Francis Crump. At Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen, Holmes has teamed up with her younger brother and chef, Frank Crump, to cook just as their grandma used to cook, following her actual recipes as faithfully as they can.
For Holmes, it’s all about capturing the feeling of “when you go over to your grandma’s house for dinner. I just want everybody to feel like family when they walk in the restaurant.”
Visiting Grandma’s kitchen as a kid is one thing. Trying to recreate and preserve the memory of it as an adult? Considerably harder. After all, childhood visits to Grandma’s don’t entail years’ worth of indefinite delays and bones-to-guts renovations, the stress of dealing with contractors, and depleting one’s entire life’s savings.
Yet this is precisely what Holmes has undertaken to get her restaurant off the ground. After being forced to close the original downtown location of Ms. Girlee’s back in 2016, Holmes spent four years and all her hard-earned dollars finding and fixing up a new home in Fulton Hill. The space, once a Chinese takeout joint, needed a ton of work.
“It was a mess,” Holmes says. “I don’t know how long it had been vacant when I leased it, but it was in shambles.” Meanwhile, in order to finance the renovation, Holmes had to drum up whatever business she could — filling catering orders, hosting weekend pop-up brunches, and staging massive fish fries in the parking lot.
All things considered, when Ms. Girlee’s finally reopened last year in the first week of March, the timing turned out to be surprisingly good. As the alternate reality of COVID-19 began setting in, folks grew desperate for small signs of normalcy in their everyday lives. Some went on short road trips to remind themselves of what it felt like to travel. Others endeavored to reconstruct their social lives on Zoom. So it made sense that, with fewer opportunities to see family, many also craved the familiarity and comforts of home (and home cooking).
The overwhelming response to the restaurant’s reopening says it all. Diners have poured in from as far away as New York City for a “visit” with Grandma Girlee. Holmes’ establishment has even gained a sort of cultish following through local dining forums on social media.
Ms. Girlee’s exudes a sense of home that nearly anyone can appreciate, even those like myself who weren’t born and bred on fish fries and stewed collards. Holmes keeps the food simple and relatable but flavorful. It’s unfussy yet still imbued with tender loving care.
A prominent part of the menu is the fried seafood. Growing up, Holmes tells me, her family would gather ritualistically around the kitchen on Fridays to “just fry fish and get our drink on.” Save for the drink, the restaurant’s “ultimate seafood” platter ($26.99) gets you the whole shebang: flaky belts of Cajun-spiced catfish in airy slips of breading; asteroidal fritters with cratered surfaces, playfully concealing large feathery masses of crab; pearly nougats of shrimp tucked into orbs of fried cornmeal batter, their taste and texture between cakey doughnut holes and jalapeño cornbread; fried shrimp, poofy and assertively crunchy; and crabcakes, unburdened by fillers, griddled until they almost resemble a charred burger patty.
And what else could go more swimmingly with this feast of Southern fishes than a side of salty, steamy collard greens; mac ’n’ cheese sheathed in a waxy layer of sharp cheddar; or a bracingly zingy and spicy cucumber salad that could easily sneak its way into a lineup of Korean banchan?
Another dish Holmes would be hard pressed to leave off the menu is the meatloaf ($13.99) — not just because it’s based on the recipe that’s been in her family for generations, but also because it’s pretty darn delicious. Each luscious wedge of beef is drenched in a classic brown gravy, thick and hearty, with little more than a simple roux and beef stock to tie it all together. There’s nothing complicated about this dish, which is very much intentional. It’s a basic two-part harmony of meat and gravy, one whose gratifying melody any person can pick up on and enjoy.
The sandwiches also leave a lasting impression. For its bologna “burger” ($12.99), the restaurant jams a juicy, beefy slice of bologna, as thick as ham steak, between gilded slabs of buttered Texas toast, fused with thin, gooey veils of American cheese. It’s less of a burger than its name suggests and more of a grilled cheese sandwich with the winning personality of a hot dog.
And the Chimborazo steak and cheese ($14.99) is undoubtedly worth the two-hour journey from Lynchburg that one customer makes every week just for this sandwich. Gushes of melted provolone stream over, under and between the interstitial layers of thinly shaved rib-eye and caramelized onions. The shavings of beef, marinated in a chimichurri, are as delectably salty and well seasoned as a Mexican-style cecina, their flavors and that of the cheese nicely counterbalanced by a piquant secret sauce.
Of course, a trip to Grandma’s house isn’t complete without some dessert. And you can’t get any more innocently sweet and nostalgic than banana pudding ($5) with a billowing pastry cream and soft vanilla wafers. (Just don’t tell Mom the pudding is spiked with vodka.) The bread pudding ($4.50), another unexpectedly boozy treat, consists of custardy jigsaw blocks of bread soaked in brandy sauce.
At Ms. Girlee’s Kitchen, downhome cooking isn’t just the theme, it’s the guiding principle. When I ask Holmes if Girlee would be proud of the restaurant her grandchildren have worked so hard to build in her honor, she replies, “Yes, she would be.” She quickly stops to correct herself: “She is proud.”