HOLMBERG: South’s best restaurant in Richmond used to serve knuckle sandwiches

Posted at 12:25 AM, Sep 04, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. -- Ooh-la-la! L'Opossum restaurant in scruffy old Oregon Hill is the only Virginia restaurant to make Southern Living's top-30 restaurants in the South this year. It has been featured in several other prominent food magazines. OpenTable named it among the top-100 in the nation for "foodies."

You know what that means…

Words like "sophisticated" and a "playful spin on French cuisine and craft cocktails," not to mention its "eclectic interior decor," all a labor of love by Chef David Shannon, who came outside Thursday to visit for a minute (not long before politician Jerry Kilgore and his wife came for their first try).

l'opossum restaurant

l'opossum restaurant (left) Chuckwagon (right)

You enter and I'm told they'll bring you something fascinating and delicious for your eyes and mouth.

But for much of this building's history, if you went in and didn't hold your mouth right, they'd put a fist in it.

Back during the Chuckwagon's heyday, knuckle sandwiches were a delicacy in Oregon Hill, an insular, all-white neighborhood heavy with Irish immigrants, many of whom manned the city's police and fire stations.

Or the state penitentiary that loomed like a giant dungeon a block away.

Oney Burns, who had one-eye, reportedly sold a million dollars in alcohol around this corner of Pine and China.

How'd he lose that eye?

"He told everybody he lost it looking for work," said Oney's son, Jim Burns, whose mom ran the Chuckwagon for a long spell.

Jim Burns

Jim Burns

There was a running poker game right across the street. Hard dudes from around the area would come to that corner to try the neighborhood's legendary street fighters, like Newman Jackson, Bernard Baldwin, Caker Williams and many others.

But for all the drinking and carrying on, it was a wonderful place to grow up, Jim Burns told me.

Kids freely wandered the streets. There was little crime. Murders didn't happen.

It was blue collar and homey and old frame houses and people having hoedowns.

That Oregon Hill character lingers.

It's no accident that the new top restaurant as well as the old one - the nationally famous (and scruffy) Italian restaurant Mamma Zu - sit just a block apart on Pine Street in residential Oregon Hill.

Check out the video for the old photos and vibe provided by lifetime local Jim Burns and let us know what you think of L'Opossum.