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Upscale coffee and wine bar to honor Richmond’s historic black bateaumen

By Samantha Willis | 9/27/2018, 6 a.m.
A boatman stands frozen in time on Brown’s Island, pulling a mighty oar and looking into infinity. The 14-foot-high bronze ...
Rendering of interior of Bateau, which is to be launched later this fall by Harry Watkins and Arvat McClaine.

Husband and wife team Arvat McClaine and Harry Watkins stand outside the Vistas on the James condominium complex in Shockoe Bottom, where they are opening Bateau, A Coffee and Wine Experience.

Richmond Free Press

Husband and wife team Arvat McClaine and Harry Watkins stand outside the Vistas on the James condominium complex in Shockoe Bottom, where they are opening Bateau, A Coffee and Wine Experience.

A boatman stands frozen in time on Brown’s Island, pulling a mighty oar and looking into infinity.

The 14-foot-high bronze statue, dubbed “The Headman,” pays homage to the enslaved and free black men who used their nautical expertise to steer small vessels — bateaux — full of goods up and down the James River in 19th century Richmond.

A forthcoming space on the city’s canalfront will offer fine wine, custom blended coffees and chef-curated small plates as it honors the memory of Richmond’s bateaumen and their contributions to commerce in the city.

Dr. Harry Watkins and Arvat McClaine said the lesser-known legacy of these skilled, forward-looking men inspired them to create Bateau, A Coffee and Wine Experience.

Dr. Watkins and Ms. McClaine are partners in this venture and in life. Married for 24 years, the couple co-owns a counseling service, Harry Co., that offers therapeutic treatment to youths and adults with behavioral and mental health issues.

Additionally, Ms. McClaine is a published author and podcast host, and Dr. Watkins is well known in Richmond for his former role as senior research and policy analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Husband and wife share soaring aspirations for their new, upscale coffee bar, which is under construction on the canal level of the Vistas on the James condominium complex on Virginia Street in Shockoe Bottom. Leipertz Construction heads up the construction and Helen Reed Design is responsible for the interior. 

“This is an opportunity for us to give the city a different experience,” said Dr. Watkins, as he sat beside his wife in a lofty suite overlooking the James River from the building’s upper floors.

Learning about the legacy of the bateaumen was a revelation for both of them, said Ms. McClaine.

“Yes, some of these men were enslaved … so we recognize the heaviness with that. But where we find the joy is that these men fashioned their own freedom through their work on the waterways.”

While bateaumen were charged with the transport of tobacco and hand-crafted goods, oral history says some used their positions to help other black men and women escape the confines of chattel slavery, Dr. Watkins and Ms. McClaine noted.

That historical narrative will be featured prominently at Bateau, which is scheduled to open later this fall. Geographically, the coffee and wine bar literally will be surrounded by meaningful markers of Richmond history. It is located within walking distance of the American Civil War Museum, the Richmond Slave Trail and the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue.

Inside, a wall mural of a bateauman will be one of the first things guests see as they enter the roughly 1,400-square-foot space. 

Adjacent to the Riverfront Canal Cruise station, Bateau will have a capacity for 49 guests and will feature a kitchen, a bar stocked with imported and domestic wines, as well as exotic coffees and other beverages.

Dr. Watkins said chef Michael Hall of Spoonbread Bistro is helping them craft a limited menu of small plate, tapas-style dishes to sate guests’ appetites. With elegant decor and live music in the background, it’s easy to imagine Bateau will live up to Dr. Watkins’ and Ms. McClaine’s vision for a “special, beautiful, culturally conscious place for people to relax and connect.”