by Charles McGuigan
So I happen into HOBNOB, completely by accident, during a seasonal staff meeting, where the owners explain to the employees every item on the upcoming menu. They change the menu out every three months or so to coincide with the seasons, which guarantees the freshest products available.
All fourteen staff are seated at the tables, facing the far end of the bar, a sort of center stage, where Tracey Thoroman stands with a pad of paper and begins explaining what will go into every dish this Lakeside restaurant, just off the main drag on Hermitage Road, will be serving up for the next few months.
And here’s the thing: the bar itself has become a groaning board lined with about twenty different culinary delights perfectly presented on HOBNOB’s signature white plates and bowls, blank canvases for gastronomic masterpieces.
“We changed over the ground beef that we use, it’s from Seven Hills out of Lynchburg,” says Tracey. “We use a lot of local purveyors. We’re using Idle Hands bakery for sourdough, and, of course, we use Early Bird biscuits.” He mentions that the sorghum hot sauce used on the Nashville chicken sandwich is made by the Shack out in Staunton, Virginia. “We try to keep everything as local as possible,” he will tell me later.
Tracey explains the king oyster BLT is a vegetarian sandwich. “The king oyster mushroom is a hearty, meaty kind of mushroom, that’s the bacon part of it,” he says. “So, it’s the mushroom, lettuce, tomato, basil mayo, and red onion.”
He then lets the employees know that though the all-American will no longer appear on the menu, it will still be available. “It will be like the secret HOBNOB burger for all our regulars,” he says.
After describing the crab cake sandwich, packed with a hefty five ounces of backfin, Tracey says, “We ran out of all our crab cakes yesterday.”
He moves rapidly through another dozen or so menu items from the fried oysters, to crab Benedict, chicken and waffles, spinach and gruyere strata, zucchini pancakes, beef brisket hash, chicken pesto pasta, shrimp and grits, lemon ricotta fritters, smoked trout deviled eggs, and so on.
“The lunch menu mirrors the dinner menu more than it ever has,” says Tracey. “All the starters, soups, and salads are the same. The entrees are the same.”
All the while Tracey has been whetting the appetite of the employees, and the moment he finishes his running commentary, all gathered rise, and make their way over to the bar. There’s a clatter of dishes and a jangle of flatware, and they move down along the countertop of the bar as if it’s a buffet line, and they load their plates with samples from the spread, and return to their seats to dine.
I return the following Monday—the only day of the week HOBNOB is closed—to meet with the owners, Tracey and Kristin Thoroman, for an extended interview. Tracey works at the restaurant full-time, heading up the kitchen and tending to the business side of the restaurant, six days a week; Kristin works evenings, managing the front of the house, while during the day she serves as director of education and exhibitions at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The pair lives just off Dumbarton.
“It’s fun that both of my jobs are right around the corner from one another,” says Kristin. “We live, work and play in Lakeside.”
HOBNOB opened a little over sixteen months ago on Saint Patrick’s Day. “It’s been a whirlwind since we opened,” Kristin says, and her husband nods.
Though they weren’t creating an entire universe in seven days, the Thoromans achieved something almost miraculous in about four and a half days, working round-the-clock. They utterly transformed the restaurant.
“Hermitage Grill closed that Sunday after brunch,” Tracey remembers. “We spent Monday and Tuesday painting, we redid the floors, we did the back of the bar, and opened that Friday.”
This past December, overnight, they replaced all the tables and the chairs, and added banquette seating. “The tables were all done by Old Dominion Wood out of Lynchburg,” says Tracey. And this further enhanced the dining room.
Kristin, not only manages the front of the house, but she is responsible for the space’s aesthetic—clean, black-and-white, minimalist design, with a few wall hangings, including a pair of staghorn ferns.
The rear of the house is Tracey’s domain. He and his wife, both of whom love everything about food, are also firm believers in dovetailing with the community in every way possible.
“I think our goal is always fresh, affordable, and local, as much as possible,” says Tracey. “And we’re growing that all the time, using more and more local products. We also try to offer a good variety on the menu so there’s a little something for anybody who comes in here. I try not to be so chefey with my own ideas.”
As the season progresses, Tracey plans to work with food providers just a couple blocks away at Lakeside Farmers Market. “As we hit the end of the spring season I plan to go over there,” he says. “I would love to just work with the local farmers as much as possible. Certainly, Cavalier Produce, which we use as our main produce purveyor, utilizes local as much as possible, too, but I think we could even get a little bit closer in.”
“We use D & I Seafood,” says Tracey. “They’re been real supporters of ours from the very beginning. They worked with us on payment while we got going, and they’re always here as quickly as possible. If I say, ‘You know we ran through more scallops than I expected last night, and we’re out,’ they’ll do their best to have them here by lunch.”
Seafood specialties at HOBNOB are among the most popular selections on the menu. “I think some of our biggest sellers, and our most reliable fan favorites, have been seafood,” Kristin says. “On this past winter menu the rockfish just went bonkers. Everybody loved it.”
Tracey used a straightforward recipe with one of the Chesapeake’s most sapid visitors. “We just pan-seared it and did a lemon-butter on top of it, and D & I sourced that, and it was locally fished out of the Bay,” he says. “We also did a rockfish BLT sandwich with bacon, Old Bay mayo, avocado, lettuce and tomato. We went through fifty to seventy-five pounds a week the entire winter. And that’s an example of an item that’s very seasonal.
When I ask about other popular menu options, Kristin smiles at her husband. “We can always talk about the roasted cauliflower,” she says. This dish, an appetizer, is served with a pistachio gremolata, and has become one of HOBNOB’s signature creations.
As they were planning their first menu, Kristin recommended putting the roasted cauliflower on it. But her husband wasn’t too sure how popular the dish would be.
“Tracey didn’t want to put it on there,” says Kristin. “He ended up putting it on, and the very first day we were opened it sold out, and ever since then it’s been on the menu.”
Tracey nods, smiles, laughs, and then talks about another favorite made with a vegetable not always popular. “One hit over the winter menu was frizzled Brussel sprouts,” he says. “You cook them in bacon fat, and then you add bacon crumbles and garlic, and top it with toasted walnuts, and that was definitely popular.”
Midway through the interview, a woman knocks on the front door. Kristin unlocks the door and tells the woman that HOBNOB is closed on Mondays, but she recommends this woman and her friend try SB’S Lakeside Love Shack over in the nearby HUB Shopping Center.
When Kristin snaps the lock shut, and returns to her perch at the bar, Tracey talks about the owners of the Love Shack. “They’re just like us,” he says. “In fact, Sarabeth and Joe were in here Saturday night, and we talked about how we might be able to cross utilize employees when one of us is a little understaffed. We want them to succeed just as much as they want us to succeed.”
And succeeding they are. HOBNOB has a massive following, with more than a few regulars. “We have a few folks who have standing reservations,” Tracey says. “We have one group of four people who have a standing Tuesday night reservation at seven o’clock. We have a couple of standing reservations for brunch. And then there’s a group that comes in every week on Thursday nights.”
People obviously come back again and again for the food, but it’s more than that. “I feel like people really recognize us as being part of the neighborhood,” says Kristin. “They love that atmosphere, and I think for people, even if it’s their first time in, they see the way that we recognize people and are chatting, and between tables people are chatting, and it’s friendly. So even if it‘s their first time in, they feel that kind of warm welcoming.”
Tracey and Kristin both acknowledge that their staff are some of the primary keys to HOBNOB’s success. Some of them have been with the restaurant since the beginning, and Kristin notices that they sometimes fill multiple roles. “So our lead bar manager right now, Amanda, she’s helping with some of that behind the scenes management in terms of ordering and inventory and other details,” she says.
“We’ve found, just through the process of now owning a business for sixteen months, that people actually step up to take those roles,” says Tracey. “Amanda has been here for over a year. She’s taken complete ownership of it, and is doing a great job.”
That philosophy, in part, hearkens back to one of Tracey’s first jobs at The Crossings Golf Course. “The general manager, Carl Filipowicz, was really good at letting me do my own thing,” he says. “He pushed me to be better, and he realized that’s what I wanted. We have an employee now that I think is kind of an example of that. Addie, our sous chef, is like that. I give her space to be her own person. It gives people the space to utilize their talents and bring their own spin on what we do here.”
They consider the success of HOBNOB. “I think we’re completely blown out of the water as to how great the reception has been,” says Tracey. Right now, their seating capacity inside, including the bar, if forty-two. There are another eighteen seats out on the front patio. At some point, the Thoroman’s may expand the restaurant with an enclosed patio off the north elevation of the building. “We want to make sure we do it the right way and at the right pace,” Tracey says.
“We’re thrilled and excited and overwhelmed, all at the same time,” says Kristin. “And we’re just so grateful for everyone’s support.”
Tuesday-Friday, 11 am-11 pm; Saturday 5 pm-11 pm; Sunday, 9 am-3 pm. Closed Mondays
6010 Hermitage Road
Richmond, VA 23227