By Paula C. Squires
In less than a month, an industrial building at the former Reynolds Metals packaging plant along the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond will be transformed into Casa del Barco, the latest offering from restaurateur Kevin Healy.
The 5,700-square-foot restaurant, scheduled to open Dec. 6, will serve as an anchor tenant at The Locks, an urban, mixed-use project under development by the WVS Cos. and Fountainhead Properties. The Richmond-based developers are converting four former tobacco warehouses on South 11th Street into a six-acre community of apartments, condominiums, retail and office space. The community’s name plays on the history of the locks system, used to regulate water levels along the Haxall and Kanawha Canals during the heyday of canal navigation in the mid-1800s.
Healy’s Mexican restaurant shares a common element with his other two ventures; namely water. Healy owns The Boathouse at Sunday Park on the shores of Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County and the Boathouse at Rockett’s Landing situated along the James River in eastern Henrico County. Casa del Barco means boathouse in Spanish.
Healy likes his newest location. “It’s just a unique location, close to Brown’s Island, which is the nicest public space in Richmond,” he said. “This is the area where the city does events, and it’s a growing area.”
For Healy, opening a modern Mexican restaurant is like coming full circle. He got his start in the restaurant industry in 1976, working at C.C. Chicanos, a national chain of Mexican restaurants, on Brook Road. “I’m familiar with the flavors and terminology of Mexico.”
A construction crew is hustling to prepare the space on the first floor of The Italianate, a former tobacco warehouse that dates back to 1896. Healy already has envisioned some touches that will set Casa del Barco apart from other Mexican restaurants. For one thing, patrons won’t be able to escape the building’s history. If they dine at the bar, Healy says wait staff will whip out a sheet of aluminum foil to put underneath their plates, rather than a traditional placemat, as a way of paying homage to one of Reynolds Metals best-known products.
Patrons also will be able to leave their mark on the restaurant’s interior décor. One of the challenges during the renovation has been the ceiling, says Healy. The interior designer wants to leave it exposed, to complement the industrial feel of the space’s original, distressed brick walls. However, there’s a need to cover up an area where utilities are stored in the ceiling. Since the restaurant plans to serve as many as 150 brands of Tequila, Healy thought of putting empty tequila bottles with their colorful labels up in the ceiling set off by LED lights. After doing some research, he learned that an empty tequila bottle costs anywhere from $1.90 to $4. “To fill the ceiling, we would need about 3,500 bottles,” he said.
The plan now is to invite patrons to sign the empty bottles of Tequila they consume at the restaurant, which will then be placed in the celling.
The restaurant will offer a 40-seat bar, a 130-seat restaurant and about 56 seats on an outdoor patio overlooking the Haxall Canal. Healy says the menu will offer items such as crab cakes and a pork shank, with a Latin flare, along with more traditional Mexican fare such as tacos and empanadas.
According to Healy, the city of Richmond plans to build a footbridge from the entrance of The Italianate to the Canal Walk, making it easy for people to enjoy the waterfront area.
The lender for the $1 million project is Sonabank, and Healy says he is getting some help from the Small Business Administration. Situated just a few blocks from Shockoe Bottom’s restaurants and nightlife, Healy expects The Locks to become a go-to destination. Yet while the area has the draw of water and history, parking is limited.
Healy doesn’t think parking will be a problem since he says there are 1,150 parking spaces within 680 feet of the restaurant. “At the end of the day, you have to produce a product that people want,” he says. That’s what draws people downtown. He’s betting that Casa del Barco and The Locks will be enough of a draw.
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