Mike Lindsey and Kimberly Love-Lindsey have been on the opening teams of restaurants before. In fact, the husband-and-wife duo have averaged opening more than one restaurant per year during their almost four-year tenure with EAT Restaurant Partners, the largest independent group in the region with 13 spots and counting.
And while Fatty Smokes, Pizza & Beer of Richmond, Hot Chick, Red Salt Sushi & Chophouse, and Wong’s Tacos were all visions they helped bring to life, Lindsey considers this next opening pivotal to his career.
“Lillie Pearl has always been a restaurant I wanted to do,” says the former EAT executive chef. Love-Lindsey previously served as director of operations for the restaurant group.
Set to debut at 416 E. Grace St. in mid-November, Lillie Pearl marks a breakout on their own. While Lindsey describes the change as bittersweet, and the EAT restaurants as their “babies,” he’s ready for the challenge.
“It feels like leaving home to go to college and you decide you wanted to go to college somewhere away from home,” he says. “Yeah, you’ll miss your friends and family, but the excitement of what’s new and what’s to come, you’ve been waiting for this.”
In a city brimming with restaurants, the downtown ode to Lindsey’s grandmother will be one of the few Black-owned fine-dining restaurants in the region. Nationwide, African-American restaurant owners and managers comprise only 8% of the industry, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“That’s the niche I know is needed, there’s not enough of that; I gotta help change that,” Lindsey says. “It has to change … for us to be able to have Black chefs who can really show their skill set and aren’t put in a box.”
A North Carolina native, Lindsey has been in the kitchen for the past 25 years and says every step along the way has prepared him for this moment. Starting as a line cook post-college, his resume includes stints at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Raleigh, The Capital Grill in Baltimore and Matchbox in Short Pump prior to joining EAT Restaurant Partners.
While Lindsey has been in more of a hands-off managerial role with the restaurant group, there’s an excitement leading up to his return to the kitchen.
“Cooking is a staple in my family,” he says. “My mom is an incredible cook and the lady at church everyone asks to make the mac and cheese and sweet potato pies.” As for his father, Lindsey describes him as “a killer griller and pitmaster.”
Scattered throughout the menu are nods to both owners’ families, from Millie’s Banana Pudding and Millie’s Tossed Salad — both named after Lindsey’s mother — along with “Dad’s Breakfast Sandwich”, a shout-out to Love-Lindsey’s dad.
But it is Lindsey’s grandmother, Lillie Pearl, to whom the restaurant pays homage, offering a version of her pork chops smothered in onions and served with rice and collards and channeling her “can-do-no-wrong” sweetness and gracious hospitality.
“I hope that everyone has that incredible grandmother,” Lindsey says. “That was Grandma Lillie. That warm smile, that welcome — something beyond inviting. We want you to feel like you’re at home when you come into this restaurant.”
Lillie Pearl will marry the flavors of Lindsey’s childhood with West African and Southern influences, with the restaurant open for lunch, “supper” and brunch. A menu standout is the obe ata braised lamb shank, served with a tomato and bell pepper sauce, jollof rice, okra, and pickled collard stems.
“This is an opportunity to spread those West African connections and dishes and cooking styles to a broader audience,” Lindsey says.
Other menu items include a crispy-skinned salmon with a curried carrot puree, lobster and crabcakes, baked pimento mac and cheese, and coffee-rubbed filet medallions. The tradition of egg rolls, a signature dish served at every EAT restaurant Lindsey has been a part of, will continue at Lillie Pearl, this iteration featuring short ribs, collards and cream cheese and served with a Thai basil sauce.
With almost three decades of cooking experience, Lindsey understands the need for the fine-dining landscape of not just the region, but the country, to change and grow to be more inclusive. In Richmond there are an estimated 70 Black-owned restaurants and food businesses, but apart from those in ownership roles, the number of African-American executive chefs is slim.
“A big part of Lillie Pearl will be dedicated to making sure we have a choice and we’re heard,” Lindsey says, noting that he wants to provide opportunities for Black chefs who often lack valuable resources and connections after completing culinary school.
“Yeah, I did a dope fried chicken spot, and yeah, I can do barbecue, but I can … cook, and cook with the best of them,” he continues. “I need young Black people to see that. A Black chef can run a new American restaurant; I want them to feel comfortable in that realm.”
Another focus at Lillie Pearl is creating a place where everyone feels welcome, and presenting a simple, straightforward, approachable menu.
“I want everyone to come in and feel comfortable,” Lindsey says, adding that he doesn’t want people pulling out their phones to Google terms on the menu. “I want them to think, ‘This is so homey, feels so good and service is true — it’s real, not a script.’ ”
As the partners embark on a new chapter, which also includes a one-month-old newborn in the mix, Lindsey says opening a restaurant together is a dream.
“Honestly, for me, it couldn’t have been any other way,” he says of their partnership. “We met in a restaurant, and I know when I’m in the kitchen that I don’t have to worry about anything — there’s a superstar in the front making things happen.”
Reviving the space that was once home to Pasture, a Southern-influenced restaurant that helped garner national attention for Richmond’s dining scene before shuttering in 2019, followed briefly by the restaurant Pink Flamingo, Lindsey says he’s excited to reignite energy downtown.
“I loved the building, love the block and love the history,” he says. “It’s sad for a space like Pasture to close because of what it meant to Richmond, but my goal is to bring back that energy, bring back that feeling and that vibe for food, and hopefully be able to … continue to push Richmond forwards.”
Lillie Pearl will be open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 to 11 p.m. on Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday; 11 a.m to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday; and closed on Monday.
— to richmondmagazine.com