Lucky Town

How a Roanoke restaurant became a perennial downtown favorite.

Lucky entered the Roanoke dining scene more than 10 years ago, with a hip vibe and high-end comfort food that could have flopped fantastically in this small mountain city. Instead, the restaurant thrived as co-owners Hunter Johnson and J.P. Powell found proof that Roanoke’s residents were hungry for a new dining experience—creative cocktails and a concise menu in an intimate, downtown setting.

Lucky is now an elder statesman among Roanoke’s trendy eateries and cool bars, where other budding restaurateurs, emboldened by Lucky’s success, have created a food scene renaissance in the region. Though Lucky is well established, it still feels fresh, with a cocktail and food menu that evolves with the seasons in the capable hands of Chef T.J. Daveldek, who has helmed the kitchen for six years.

“Like in music, in a restaurant you have to have a creative mind that is creating the food, and people that are passionate about what they are doing.” —Hunter Johnson, bartender and owner

“The story of how our chef came here sums up how things have fallen into place for us,” says Johnson. A stroke of luck, perhaps, but Daveldek responded to a Craigslist ad for a prep job in the kitchen while he was back in Roanoke temporarily, visiting his parents. As it turns out, Daveldek had worked as the youngest-tenured sous chef for David Chang at the famed Momofuku in New York.

“Our head chef that was here was moving on to our new restaurant [Fortunato], and we knew we’d have to hire but didn’t have anyone in mind,” remembers Johnson. “T.J. literally just walked in one day, and he’s incredibly talented and has been here ever since.”

Daveldek hails from New York, but has a friendly, self-effacing demeanor that’s right at home in a small southern city. Lucky’s menu had strong French influences when Daveldek took over, and he’s added a wider flavor profile to the menu. For example, his ease with traditional Asian ingredients from his days at Momofuku is on full display in the steamed mussel bowl, dressed with ginger, garlic, scallions, and Korean chili, and the Japanese-inspired tofu dish, with miso, nori, sushi rice, umeboshi, and salmon roe.

When asked what he’d order for a first-timer to Lucky, Daveldek ponders the question. “It’s like trying to choose between favorite children,” he laughs, but he settles on starting with the Olde Salt Oysters from Virginia’s Rappahannock Oyster Company, which are served with a Champagne mignonette. “I’d go with a cocktail that doesn’t overpower the oysters,” he says, pointing to the Pierre Extraordinaire, which is modeled after a sidecar, with grapefruit oleo, Cognac, and fresh lemon. He’d bring out the bread plate to go with the oysters, before moving on to the bright and fresh Massachusetts Diver Scallops, his favorite entrée on the menu for spring.

The scallops pair nicely with the sugar snap peas, which are sautéed until blistering and topped with a classic French gribiche sauce, peashoots, and fried garlic chips. If you aren’t up for seafood, the pork chops with charred ramps give the staple a local bent. If you linger long enough, which you are always invited to do at Lucky, you might find room for a house-made dessert, like the sublime Blood Orange Panna Cotta.

Daveldek’s menu is served in a long, narrow building with an old soul patina, with the original tin ceiling and concrete floors still intact. A bar runs nearly the length of the room and can seat 16, with an award-winning bar menu dreamed up bi-monthly by head bartender Taylor Mann and Johnson.

Running parallel is a bank of comfortable black-leather booths, raised nearly to bar height, a design detail that makes it easy to chat with a friend who has strolled into the joint for an after-work cocktail. Walnut tables frame the remaining spaces, and the restaurant can seat nearly 50 at capacity. “We saw that in a club, where booths were built on a platform to feel connected to the bar, and we also kept our booths low-backed so people would be able to socialize with one another,” says Johnson. “This is the opposite of a social distance joint,” he muses, pointing to the fact that they chose to keep TVs out of the bar to encourage conversation.

Brett Winter Lemon

Lucky | Roanoke, VA. Pear Skin Rug

When Lucky is glowing in amber light after dark, it’s no accident that the place gives off a club-type vibe. Owners Johnson and Powell are successful musicians, who toured around the country playing gigs before both settled in Roanoke. Neither had restaurant experience, but when they got together to write songs, they drifted to talk about the lack of a local culinary scene, and how they missed their favorite spots from on tour.

“In New York or Boston, say, you could get an amazing meal and an amazing cocktail at the same place, and it wasn’t necessarily fine dining, but a laid-back kind of place. We thought, why don’t we do this here?” explains Johnson. “So we opened Lucky. It’s funny, we thought if we opened a restaurant, we’d have more time to play music. That part didn’t work out so great.”

Johnson and Powell are still as passionate about music as they are about the restaurant, and their band, My Radio, has found commercial and “street cred” success, playing in FloydFest and finding placements in TV and movies.

“I feel like there is a very close relationship between making food and creating an experience around food and music,” says Johnson. “Like in music, in a restaurant you have to have a creative mind that is creating the food, and people that are passionate about what they are doing, who want to take the time to understand and convey to someone how a glass of wine relates to a meal. I tell people we’d never have this restaurant without music.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue.

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