Bitter pill for Vinegar Hill...

 The doors are closed and locked, and the phone's been disconnected, never good signs for a restaurant (or any business, for that matter). What's going on at Vinegar Hill Grill, the restaurant that opened three years ago in the former Random Row spot on McIntire Road across from the Omni?

In a word, bankruptcy. Vinegar Hill owner James G. "Jimmy" Gilbert declared himself bankrupt on September 23, according to records from U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Former Random Row owner Don Ross, who sold the business to Gilbert in 1999, says the deal was bad from the start. "He never did pay me," says Ross, one of 23 creditors listed in Gilbert's bankruptcy file.

Gilbert says the trouble was in getting a dinner business going. "We couldn't keep people from going to the Downtown Mall," he says. Though he declines comment on the money matters, Gilbert says he'll continue to run his catering business and food service at the Meadowcreek Golf Course.

The story is no happier for Ross, who now finds himself the unintended owner (again) of all the equipment left in the restaurant.

Though he attempted to re-lease the space, Ross says the building's owners wanted "something different" in there, so the leasing agent gave the space to American Dream Catering, the company that– among many other things– provides all pre-season meals to the UVA football team.

"I would have taken that space and reopened it as Random Row with a few updates," says Ross.

Though he's been retired from the restaurant business for the past few years, Ross says he would have "come back with a flourish." Alas, now he's left with only a pile of restaurant equipment to sell.

But dashed hopes for one business are sweet dreams for another.

Twenty-five-year-old Walter Slawski, a 1999 UVA grad, started American Dream soon after his graduation from college, and focused on catering to fraternity and sorority functions. It quickly expanded, and Slawski now runs the business with younger brother Alexander, 22, and some help from his dad, Walter Sr.

For seven years, the Slawski family lived in Zimbabwe, where the boys' mother was raised and where her extended family still lives. When Walter Jr., Alexander, and their sister all chose to attend schools in Virginia, their parents decided to return to the States and settled in the far west end of Richmond.

The catering business will move to the Vinegar Hill spot sometime over the next several weeks, says Walter Sr. Eventually perhaps as soon as December or January– the Slawskis hope to open a restaurant in the space as well, and to that end, they'll be starting renovations immediately, putting in hardwood floors, redoing the ceiling, and replacing all furniture.

Says Walter Sr.: "We're aiming for a Cape Dutch feel," a South African look with heavy beams and lots of wood.


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