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[Photographs: Kevin Liu]

Richmond, Virginia isn't the first city you might think of for craft cocktails, but if you know where to look, you can find surprisingly great drinks served up in bars full of Southern charm.

When I first moved to Richmond all I knew about the drinking culture was "there's that place that has cheap beer on Mondays" and "look out for the college kids on Friday and Saturday nights." Having lived in Boston for two years and frequented New York's cocktail scene often in that time, it looked like I'd be trading down by moving down to the River City.

Now that I live here, I can think of no better place to find a great drink.

In addition to the craft beer and local wine scene, the cocktail renaissance is hitting the area's restaurants with full force. Don't expect phone booths and secret handshakes to get into your favorite establishments: the atmosphere around here is casual and inviting. Seats are easy to score and the dress code is casual as a rule. Add to that the ridiculous happy hours at some of the places on this list, and, well, I'm here to stay.

Craft Cocktails in a Strip Mall: Toast

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Hidden in an otherwise nondescript strip mall in an otherwise culinarily bland part of town, Toast serves up surprisingly great bar food paired with a well-curated if small cocktail menu. I had heard good things about Toast's happy hours (every day, with beers from $2 to $4 and $4 for wine on tap), but couldn't resist trying the cocktails, none of which are discounted during happy hour.

My party ended up trying most of the offerings; each one was well-balanced, from the light, floral, and sparkling Hey Jealousy ($8) to the dark and complex Garibaldi ($9). A hearty serving of sweet potato tots (worth the drive themselves) helped fuel our thirsts. Compared to other similar gastropubs in Richmond, Toast stands out for serving something to sip on for every taste and smart food that rises above your average pub fare.

Toast New American Gastropub: 7007 Three Chopt Road, Richmond, VA, 23226 (map) 804-525-4525; toastrva.com

A Speakeasy to Rival the Best: Saison

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Don't let Saison's abbreviated facebook menu put you off—this hole-in-the wall speakeasy boasts drink menus covering the classic cocktail corpus, from several takes on the Old-Fashioned to tangy tiki drinks featuring a laundry-list of rums. I counted over 30 cocktails on the menu. The drinks are prepared with care, but without pomp. Hard shakes, long stirs, and expertly sliced garnishes are in full effect here, but the vibe of the space makes you feel as comfortable ordering a beer and a shot as you would a cocktail.

On one recent visit, I sampled an amaro-forward aperitif sporting a smart cucumber garnish, a tasty mezcal-based spin on a Paloma, and an amazing Negroni served straight off the tap. The food service matches the drinks. You'd think that chicken liver pate would make an unlikely bar snack—until you've tried it, that is. If you're expecting stuffy waitstaff and secret passwords to get into this speakeasy, don't bother. Look instead to stroll through the front door, grab a seat at the bar, and enjoy a great drink.

Saison: 23 West Marshall Street, Richmond, VA, 23220 (map) 804-269-3689; Saison on Facebook

Casual Date Night: Heritage

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Heritage is one of those spots that makes you want to pinch yourself. Is it actually possible that every single cocktail they serve is a home run? Can I seriously just walk in here without a reservation, wearing jeans and a t-shirt?

I originally followed bar manager (and co-owner) Mattias Hagglund over to Heritage from Comfort, another well-known and top-notch Richmond eatery. When I visited the new digs for the first time, I was blown away not only by Hagglund's drinks, but also by the quality and originality of the food. Of course, this was in the restaurant's early days, before head chef Joe Sparatta earned the best review ever from Richmond's Times-Dispatch. In line with the seasonal and locavore approach taken in the kitchen, drinks rotate on and off the menu constantly. Many feature local brands and custom-created mixers. Most will cost you just $8 to $10.

I particularly like Heritage as a casual date spot due to its portion sizing. Food comes in "small," "medium," and "large" sizes that encourage sharing between two people. My wife and I frequently visit for nights out and our table quickly fills with charcuterie wedged between steak, cheeses, pork belly, and any number of other delicacies. Despite the feast of food and drinks, it seems like we always manage to walk out spending less than we expected to. The cat may be out of the bag already on Heritage, but that doesn't mean I expect to stop visiting any time soon.

Heritage: 1627 West Main Street, Richmond, VA 23220 (map) 804-353-4060; heritagerva.com

Fancy Date Night: Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel

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I'm not one to get dressed up for dinner. I usually enjoy my food better when I'm not being choked out by a tie. But, Lemaire is located within one of Richmond's oldest and grandest landmarks. It's the type of place where men show up for dinner in sports coats and women have the opportunity to show off their finest jewelry without feeling out of place. So I wore nice pants.

According to bar manager Scott Harris, however, the restaurant has no official dress code. In fact, he wants you to drop by for casual drinks, not just special occasions. And it's not just the attire that supports that invitation. Lemaire's happy hour runs every day from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. and offerings include $5 wine, beer for $2 to $4, and a special $5 cocktail every day. A 3-appetizer tasting runs just $20 during happy hour and there's also the option to enjoy a 3-course dinner tasting for $30 between 5 and 6 p.m.

Even without a discount, the cocktail menu offers a terrific value. The Monument and Boulevardier ($12) is a Richmonder's version of the classic Boulevardier that replaces Campari with fruity and complex Byrrh Quinquina. Mr. Grant's Derby ($10) is a simple 3-ingredient drink that manages to be both crisp and complex by marrying fresh lime juice with 12-year-old aged rum. And an artfully presented non-alcoholic Monument Avenue ($6), full of fresh mint, had fellow bar patrons clamoring for a taste. Considering that all the drinks are served in surroundings worthy of a movie set (think three-story marble pillars and centuries-old chandeliers), I might even consider dressing up for a second visit. Or I could just wear jeans.

Lemaire: 101 West Franklin Street, Richmond, VA 23220 (map) 804-649-4629; lemairerestaurant.com

...and for the Morning After: Lulu's

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Richmond is well-known for a strong Saturday and Sunday brunch culture, but few places offer only brunch service. Which is why I had to try Lulu's, a brunch spot that only recently opened up a dinner menu on Friday and Saturday nights. The food was drool-worthy (we tried an Eggs Benedict and a shrimp and grits dish), but the highlight of my morning was discovering the Corpse Reviver #2 ($9) tucked away in an oft-forgot corner of the menu. The drink was carefully made and perfectly balanced—a tasty companion to my endless coffee refills. A brief glance behind the bar revealed a nicely selected collection of spirits that make me look forward to trying Lulu's for dinner and a drink in the future.

Lulu's: 21 North 17th Street, Richmond, VA 23219 (map) 804-343-9771; lulusrichmond.com

About the author:Kevin Liu likes to drink science and study cocktails. Wait, that's backward. Ask him geeky food and booze questions on twitter @kevinkliu. While you're at it, check out his book about cocktail science.

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