by Judy Cowling
The image that comes to mind when Brian Michael Radford thinks back to his early teenage years is hands. Those hands, his father’s, taught him how to hunt and field dress a deer, how to split the animal down the backbone and use a fillet knife to separate the tenderloins, then the sirloins, and then set aside long, thin scraps for jerky.
Growing up with 40 acres of forest behind his boyhood home in Glen Burnie, Md., Radford – the butcher’s son behind the popular restaurants of the same name – developed a strong love of nature and time spent outdoors.
Once, while playing with friends in the woods, he discovered a horse farm nearby. After watching the farmer ride a horse through his fields, Radford asked if he could ride one. “Only if you muck out the stalls,” the farmer said.
Radford spent every free moment of the next five years cleaning and riding, first on Blondie, a mare quarter horse, then on Streak, a red Arabian trail horse with a white lightning bolt on his neck. It made such an impression on him that for a long time the future restaurateur seriously considered being a cowboy. “Watching Lonesome Dove in my childhood, working with horses and being drawn to the outdoors made me want to live a life like I saw in that movie.”
Yet over the past 17 years, Radford, 45, has owned and partnered in some of the most successful restaurants in Tidewater, including Hell’s Kitchen, HK on the Bay and two steakhouses – The Butcher’s Son I & II, named in honor of his father, Mike Radford, a butcher for 30 years with Giant Foods.
He is working on another project, this one a Southern-style steak and fish house called Southern Gent. In it he has combined his love of food and his love of the outdoors.
It will be built in the style of a stately, two-story Charlestonesque spread with decks and a patio overlooking Sherwood Lakes, in Virginia Beach’s Pungo. Only 2.8 acres of the 6-acre parcel on Princess Anne Road are buildable for the structure and parking. The rest will be green space with plenty of trees, lush landscaping and a large chef’s garden.
So how does one go from wanting to live on the open range to running restaurants?
After studying forestry at Allegheny College for two years, Radford left school when offered an assistant general manager position at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant back in Tidewater.
“As much as I loved forestry and the thought of working outside,” he said, “I was drawn to the challenge of management. I started having ideas of owning my own restaurant while working in restaurants in my teen years and through college. And there isn’t a lot of money in being a conservationist unless I wanted to get a higher degree, and more school was not for me.”
He followed up his time at Chi-Chi’s with a job in the Texas Roadhouse franchise group, where he learned corporate structure, how to hire, when to fire and whom to promote. It was there, he said, that he saw firsthand that a competent staff is the key to the success of a restaurant.
Always a big fan of the live music scene, Radford yearned to combine it with a restaurant environment. He had that chance as assistant general manager in charge of nightclubs and gaming at Jillian’s in the original Waterside, where he met and befriended Kevin Blair, who became his business partner.
The two cemented their future during a car ride back from Richmond where they had received service awards for Jillian’s. “The president and vice president of the company closed this meeting with a speech,” Blair said. “Brian was late coming down to the lobby afterwards. I was driving home and my patience was wearing thin. … We left and didn’t speak for two hours. The first thing he said wasn’t ‘I’m sorry.’ It was ‘That should be us.’ ”
So they hatched the plan to open their own restaurant. With help from both families, they raised $90,000 to open Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Norfolk, a rock ’n’ roll bar with high-energy acts, punk rock Sundays, and a menu of nachos, wings, sandwiches, pizzas and plenty of cold beer. The partners went on to open HK on the Bay in Virginia Beach, a neighborhood watering hole with a reputation for great service and food. It was there Radford launched the annual Chic’s Beach Festival, with big-name musical acts that typically drew 1,000 to 1,500 revelers.
Eager to start a new concept, Radford sold his interest in Hell’s Kitchen to Blair and they found a new owner for HK on the Bay. This son of a butcher kept his concept personal, choosing steakhouses and eventually opening two – in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Both boast sophisticated, handsome interiors where Bogie and Bacall would look right at home sipping Manhattans.
“Steakhouses are part of the American story and I wanted to explore each style,” he said. “I designed the Chesapeake Butcher’s Son, which opened in 2015, with a New York steakhouse feel decked out with deep oxblood red, button-tufted booths. I saw Virginia Beach, which opened in 2017, as my Chicago-Capone style steakhouse with deep blue-black, high-backed, Sinatra-style booths.”
Radford’s restaurants buy $1.5 million to $2 million in beef a year. Only all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef from humanely treated cattle is used, he said. He prefers local vendors like Pungo-Tuck, but they recently shuttered operations and have referred most of their customers to Coastal Cattle.
“I’ve watched documentaries about what’s in our food,” he said. “I believe businesses should be as responsible to the consumer as possible.” Montana’s Meyer Natural Foods, now the restaurants’ primary vendor, “employs quiet cowboys to keep the endorphin and adrenaline levels down in the cattle so as not to taint the taste of their meat. We buy beef from their satellite farm in North Carolina.”
Radford thinks a lot about meat, which is not surprising given his youth. His father, long since retired from butchering, still plays a starring role in his son’s life. Though in his 70s, he still happily puts in a full day’s work building goat pens, putting up fencing and doing odd jobs around his son’s property. “My dad is a humble man and the best man I know,” Radford said. “He taught me how to work and that there’s not a job worth doing unless you do it right. A line from Lonesome Dove best describes him: ‘cheerful in all weathers, never shirked a task.’ ”
Though no longer a hunter – Radford lost the thrill in his 20s – the butcher’s son is inching closer to his childhood dream of being a cowboy.
He hops into Big Blue, his 1972 turquoise and white Ford pickup, every Thursday and Friday and hits the local farms and markets to buy produce. His young black and white border collie, Cody, rides shotgun. The deliveries they make to his restaurants are like
surprise challenges for the chefs to spontaneously create nightly specials.
Big Blue is also the workhorse of Radford’s 6-acre Pungo ponderosa. It hauls the timothy grass he feeds to Mary Sue, Zangar and Dorothy, his pygmy goats. He transports the scat from the hay in the goat pen to the chicken coop. The free-range chickens feed on the larvae that hatch in their scat.
The chickens’ eggs find their way into the cakes served in his restaurants while Breeze N Farms adds 10 dozen or so a week to fill the void. Radford and his 11-year-old son, Jack, spend training time in the saddle two to three times a week at Breeze N Farms. It’s not practical to have horses now at Radford’s home. But plans include finding a larger parcel of land where he can build a ranch, a barn for horses and enough land to raise cattle.
Until then, Cody can yip and run circles around the chicken coop as practice for herding duties.
When the dream becomes real, Radford will turn his present home into an event facility for weddings and parties suitable for city slickers, butcher’s sons or real-life cowboys.