Longoven’s long journey
was named one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants in 2016; the restaurant officially opened in June. It was quite the journey.
Hailed as one of America’s best new restaurants in 2016, its opening last month was years in the making
It’s hard for Patrick Phelan — co-owner and co-chef of Longoven, which opened June 28 in Scott’s Addition — to talk about his new restaurant without tearing up.
Phelan, 44, and his co-owners and co-chefs — his wife, Megan Fitzroy Phelan, 37, and Andrew Manning, 43 — had been looking for a home for their restaurant and passion project, Longoven, for the past four years. But in many ways, their journey started 15 years ago, in a tiny, sweltering kitchen in the Fan District, at Helen’s restaurant. Along the way, there was heartbreak; love and marriage; setbacks; tragedy and triumph; death; a few children; dozens of jobs; a billion-dollar cruise ship; time in two continents, three countries, three states; and one epic friendship.
Roughly 15 years ago, Phelan — an Army brat who ended up in Prince George County when his dad was stationed at Fort Lee — was a struggling musician who needed a job. David Shannon, now chef and owner of L’Opossum restaurant, hired him to work in the kitchen at Helen’s.
“I didn’t even know how to cook a hot dog,” Phelan said, but Shannon hired him anyway, and Phelan started at the bottom.
Shannon soon left and was replaced as executive chef by Manning, a Richmond native who was coming from the now-defunct VCUarea restaurant Sweetwater.
“Andrew was the first chef who took my food and threw it in the trash can,” Phelan said. “And that changed everything for me.”
For the next five or so years, Manning and Phelan worked side by side, two of a three-person crew that did everything from morning prep to evening dinner service for the Fan eatery.
Then Manning had the opportunity to move to Italy to cook — in a castle, no less, in Alba — and he took it. Phelan went to The Kitchen Table in Shockoe Bottom — until Tropical Storm Gaston ravaged it and dozens of other small businesses in the area in August 2004.
“Andrew said, ‘Come to Italy,’” Phelan said. And so he did. “We foraged everything” in the hills of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. “It was beautiful. You took a knife in case you ran into a boar.”
Manning had taken well to Italy, easily picking up the language and finding himself at home rooting through fields in search of the freshest ingredients. Manning ended up staying for just over a decade, marrying an Italian woman and having a son and daughter. Phelan stayed for five months.
“I didn’t learn Italian easily,” he said. “I wanted to go home.”
Phelan decided he was done with cooking and headed to Connecticut to study public policy at Trinity College.
“It was the only school I could find that would accept me with like a negative GPA,” he said jokingly. But Phelan soon found that he needed money, so he fell back on his trusty skill: cooking.
He took a job working at a restaurant in Hartford. There, in the kitchen, he would put his notes in the ticket window so he could study while he worked. It was also there that he met his now-wife, Megan, who was a pastry chef. Phelan and Megan stayed at the restaurant for
Explore Longoven’s menu and layout on Page D5.
the next three years.
Around 2007, “Megan and I found our way to New York. I was doing public policy. Megan rolled the dice and got in at Daniel [restaurant],” he said.
Megan would spend the next six years or so working as a pastry chef in some of the most revered restaurants and bakeries in New York, including Daniel, Torrisi and Sullivan Street Bakery.
Phelan, however, couldn’t find a fulltime public policy job, so found himself back in kitchens, this time doing highend catering and working with chef Neal Gallagher. Phelan, who had no previous catering experience, was suddenly leading a team doing the food for movie premieres, Wall Street executives and $4 million bar mitzvahs.
“I dove in, and it was the best job I ever had,” Phelan said. But the hours were brutal — for both him and Megan.
“We were just getting hammered. We were working 17-hour days,” Phelan said. “We came home and cried every night.”
But Phelan had never lost touch with his old friend Manning, who was still in Italy. “Andrew was in the field picking product,” he said. “I’d send him pictures of the ‘Mission Impossible’ movie premiere and Hamptons’ parties.”
The two got to talking — as Phelan and Megan had been doing — and thinking: Maybe the three of them should open their own restaurant — and maybe they should come home to do it.
“We’d been watching Richmond,” Phelan said. “Watching Kendra [Feather]’s growth [of The Roosevelt, Ipanema Cafe, Garnett’s Cafe and Laura Lee’s]; Lee [Gregory of The Roosevelt, Southbound and Alewife] and Brittanny Anderson [at Metzger Bar and Butchery and Brenner Pass] . ... We started to talk about ‘what if we moved back to Richmond.’”
Phelan and Megan were also talking about starting a family — something they didn’t think they could afford to do in New York. And a move to Richmond would put them closer to Phelan’s family, who were now in Northern Virginia. Manning, who now had two young children, learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer. He wanted his kids to know their grandfather.
A decision was made: In the spring and summer of 2014, the group relocated to Richmond, ready to get to work on Longoven, the name they’d already selected for their restaurant.
But life had a surprise for them.
Phelan and Megan stopped in Washington to visit Phelan’s sister on their way to Richmond, and Megan said she wasn’t feeling well.
”I thought she was trying to get out of moving boxes,” Phelan said.
She wasn’t. Megan was pregnant.
“That put things on hold a little bit,” Phelan said. They decided to stay with friends just outside the city for a few months while they looked for a house and worked on Longoven’s first pop-up event.
Held at Shockoe Denim in Shockoe Bottom on a hot summer night in 2014, “Longoven Summer Pop-Up” introduced Richmond to “a pop-up dining event that focuses on a unique perspective on ingredient-driven cuisine,” according to the first flyer for the event. That night, Richmond met Longoven.
Their hope was to do the pop-ups for a short time while they looked for a bricksand-mortar location and funding to help flesh out their savings. But they ended up doing the pop-ups for more than three years as the chefs worked other jobs and searched for a space, because life, once again, had other plans for them.
Just after that first pop-up, Phelan got a call from his old friend and boss Neal Gallagher. Gallagher was in Europe, overseeing the launch of restaurants on a luxury cruise line docked in Germany.
“So Andrew and I flew to Germany to help,” Phelan said. “Andrew got the massive upstairs restaurant, and I got three restaurants downstairs.”
Manning and Phelan were learning the new kitchens and staff, and the ship was making brief treks out to sea as test runs. Cell service was spotty — even spottier when at sea — and it was there that Phelan got a call from his brother.
“He said, ‘You have to make endof-life decisions: It’s your wife or your baby.’” Megan, then six months’ pregnant, had been visiting her sister-in-law in D.C., when something went wrong.
Most of that day is still a blur, Phelan said. “I don’t know how, but Neal Gallagher got a billion-dollar cruise ship to turn around.”
Phelan went to see Manning, who had lost his father a few weeks earlier, then he was on a plane.
“I didn’t even recognize Meg when I walked in the room,” he said. She’d had a seizure, her organs were failing and the baby — at 1 pound, 8 ounces — had been airlifted to another hospital.
It was brutal and touch-and-go.
Phelan was taken to his daughter to feed her with a medicine dropper.
“She was this little bird,” he said of their daughter, Lillian.
Lillian will turn 4 in October.
“The next two years went by in a blur,” Phelan said.
They lived at a Ronald McDonald House for four months. Megan slowly recovered, and the friends whom they’d planned to stay with for a few months ended up hosting them for two years. Along the way, Manning, Megan and Phelan consulted at Richmond area restaurants. Manning’s wife, Valentina Giordano, also started working in Richmond restaurants; Phelan went back to catering.
Finally, it was time to focus on Longoven again. They resumed the search for a space and relaunched the pop-ups.
“I called Evrim [Dogu at Sub Rosa Bakery in Church Hill] and asked if we could do pop-ups,” Phelan recalled. “He said, ‘Any Sunday you want. Just leave the place how you found it.’”
“We had a wood-fired oven and two camping burners,” Phelan said, “We were trying to do two a month. It just started growing. Every time, there were more and more new people.”
The trio soon landed an invite to Atlanta Food & Wine, an annual festival that brings together some of the best chefs in Southern food and the biggest names in food publishing.
“We started making all these relationships,” he said. “All of these people were mind-blowing supportive. Between Richmond and the community of Southern chefs, it was such overwhelming hospitality and support.”
Then, the trio caught wind, as happens with these things, that food editors and writers from Bon Appétit, one of the biggest publications in the food world, would be attending one of Longoven’s pop-ups at Sub Rosa.
“Things went well that night,” Phelan said. “But we could’ve done some things better. We thought maybe we’d get a blurb [in the magazine].”
Months later, the issue came out. They got more than a blurb: In August 2016, Bon Appétit named Longoven one of “America’s best new restaurants.”
“Restaurants don’t open overnight. As a result, a lot of very talented chefs can be left itching for a stove to cook on while they search for the perfect venue, seek out investors, or trudge through red tape. Such is the case for Patrick Phelan, Megan Fitzroy Phelan, and Andrew Manning,” the magazine wrote. “Pop-ups are often a risk; in the case of Longoven, that gamble pays off. We can’t wait to see what’s next.”
“That changed everything,” Phelan said. “It was exactly what we needed to motivate [us] to keep looking [for spaces].”
But finding a space was proving difficult.
“We lost 18 spaces,” Phelan said.
And every space was a process. “It was months of process. It kept resetting. Our lives were on hold.”
And the Bon Appétit recognition had made the pop-ups explode. The wait list for the pop-ups was 200 people-long. “We started trying to do events just for the list,” Phelan said, but there were complaints from prospective diners who thought they were waiting too long to get one of a handful of seats at the pop-ups. So they complained.
“The pop-ups were getting exhausting. We were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it perfect. They broke even. How do you support your family breaking even? We thought, ‘Maybe it’s not time,’” Phelan said.
They were done, they decided. One cold February day last year, six months after the Bon Appétit piece came out, they were done.
But life, of course, had other plans. “That same day, a friend of Andrew’s called him and said, ‘I am standing next to the King of Pops looking at Longoven.”
And he was. They signed the lease on the former paint store and got to work on — at long last — the newest chapter of their lives: the bricks-and-mortar location of Longoven.
Their hope was to do the pop-ups for a short time while they looked for a bricks-and-mortar location. ... But they ended up doing the pop-ups for more than three years. ... Life, once again, had other plans for them.
Longoven restaurant, a passion project that took nearly 15 years to become a reality, opened in June in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood in Richmond.
Andrew Manning (from left), Megan Fitzroy Phelan and Patrick Phelan, chefs and co-owners of Longoven, built a following and reputation for their inspired food long before they had a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
Andrew Manning and Megan Fitzroy Phelan plate food for a Longoven pop-up dinner at Sub Rosa Bakery. They did the popular pop-ups while looking for a restaurant space.