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Whether you are in the mood for a burger, a pizza or some fresh seafood, the latest venture from the team behind Opus 9 has something to offer.
Opus 9 owner Steve Lewis, general manager Steve Smith and chef Aaron Guzik have joined forces to launch Craft 31, a new restaurant in a space many longtime locals will recognize as the former home of both the Cove and the Backfin restaurants.
The latest entry in Lewis’s restaurant family, which includes Opus 9 as well as eateries in Richmond, Newport News and Maryland, opened its doors two weeks ago, but has been in the works since last fall.
“Steve [Smith] and I have been looking for another project for a while,” said Guzik, who worked at Opus 9 for three years and is now the executive chef at Craft 31. “Opus 9 is a well-oiled machine now and we’ve been looking for something new and fun.”
Setting the Menu
Smith and Guzik share a passion for Mexican food and originally intended their next venture to be in that food family, but Smith says the plans for the concept fell through last year. It was at that point they started to turn their attention toward the idea of a burger joint.
“We wanted to do a gourmet burger restaurant in part because we’re already in the red meat business down the street [at Opus 9],” said Smith.
The decision was also influenced by Lewis’s fond memories of a restaurant in southwest Virginia that featured skillet-cooked burgers. Though Opus 9 burgers are prepared on a grill – as Smith says is the case with most restaurants – the team began to experiment with cast iron in their free time.
“What we achieved from doing that was inspiring to us,” Smith said.
Around the same time they were developing the concept, the team heard rumblings that the former home of the Cove was possibly available. The space’s proximity to Opus 9 made it a logical location to pursue, but Guzik and Smith quickly realized there was one major problem.
“Once we got into the building we realized it was way too big to just do burgers,” Smith said.
The team soon discovered this was a blessing in disguise, with the larger space affording them the opportunity to diversify their offerings.
“The last thing you want to do is pigeonhole yourself,” said Guzik. “You have to cater to different audiences.”
One of Lewis’s most successful restaurants is Bottoms Up Pizza, a Richmond-based pizzeria. The team decided the thin-crust version of Bottoms Up’s signature pies would make a great addition to the Craft 31 menu.
Guzik also noted the popularity of seafood in Virginia made a raw bar a natural choice to round out the menu.
With the cornerstones of the menu set, the next hurdle was to tackle making the space their own.
“The last thing you want to do is take over a restaurant that closed for whatever reason and open it up and have it look just like the place that closed,” Smith said.
Smith referenced noise as the most frequent complaint he heard from patrons who used to frequent the Cove, so he decided to break the space up to reduce volume issues within the restaurant. The main dining room is now divided into three distinct spaces, with the largest and most open seating area on the far left, a smaller center room and a bar and a handful of tables on the far right.
Though the interior needed to undergo major renovations, the outside already had several features that Smith was eager to utilize. In addition to a small outdoor patio, the restaurant also boasts a convertible indoor-outdoor space, with garage door-style walls that can be opened or closed as weather demands.
“Obviously this time of year we’re leaving it open, but we can turn on the heaters [in the ceiling] and [the] fireplace and you can sit out here in a blizzard,” Smith said.
Standing Out from the Crowd
Though they have done what they can to make the space their own, the Craft 31 team is well aware of the fact that two restaurants have recently come and gone from this location. Despite the failure of their predecessors, Smith firmly believes Craft 31 has what it takes to break the pattern.
“We do more on the marketing side with our restaurants than most traditional non-chain restaurants,” Smith said. “Nobody would come to Opus at lunch when I started there. We were perceived to be outside of their price range, but we knew we had 10 items on our lunch menu that cost $10 so we started marketing them differently. That changed our volume. We went from doing 20 people for lunch a day to 120."
Smith also believes that, since Craft 31 is off the beaten path for most tourists, it is crucial to court locals. This means offering a variety of menu items and doing them all well enough that people want to come back.
“At the end of the day, me and Aaron have to do our jobs or else everybody is only going to come once,” Smith said.
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Smith. He and Guzik believe that is largely because they have based all of their decisions on what kind of foods they personally like eating – and the rest has fallen into place.
“If I ever had a day off, this is where I’d want to spend it,” Guzik said, laughing. “This was the right opportunity, the right time, the right space and the right concept… this is the type of place we’d both love to hang out at.”