The last time I walked into Metro Grill, about a dozen years ago, my life was very different. I'd recently become single, and in those days I probably spent more money drinking than eating. Recent visits there are a reminder that Metro still holds its own as a friendly neighborhood place with the long bar, wooden booths and tin ceiling we've come to know in Richmond. Regulars watch TV and chat with the bartenders and wait staff. Conversation bounces around the room, overshadowing Dave Matthews and Wilco on the sound system during our visit.
Metro seems to have upped the ante lately with a more refined menu and better-than-average bar food. Felix Gostel, formerly Metro's sous chef, took over last year and makes daily specials as well as what's on the varied and affordable menu.
We arrive for dinner just before the end of happy hour, which runs from 4-8 p.m. daily serving $2 domestic beer and $3 rail drinks. We start with a cocktail and a few appetizers. Crab cakes from the menu's medium-plates section are served three ways with three sauces. At $12.95, they're mostly crab and a good value for the size. The lemon horseradish crA"me fraArche is a refreshing riff on cocktail sauce, the chipotle cream rich and smoky, and the fresh herb aioli tasty as well.
I have a difficult time resisting a special, and the cobia ($18) turns out to be a good choice. It's served over creamy stone-ground cheese grits and a cooling watermelon and mint sauce with a spicy pepper finish. The side of broccoli is a throwaway, unseasoned and dry. My wife chooses chicken boursin ($13.95), and while the moist breast stuffed with red pepper, spinach and cheese filling is good, the tomato sauce ruins the dish for me. Chewy chunks of pancetta overwhelm every bite, and a side of mixed seasonal vegetables adds nothing.
Throughout the evening our server, Heather, is gracious and friendly. She sits at our table, tells us about her child and family, hopes and dreams. While some folks find this type of service too forward, it's the type of gregarious attitude that keeps a lot of regulars coming back.
Desserts include some seasonal offerings, and my mouth waters while I wait for grilled peaches with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis ($5). The concept is better than the execution as the crunchy peach needs days to achieve ripeness. My wife overcomes her lifelong aversion to bread pudding ($5) with a rich chocolate rendition that leans closer to brownie cake.
On a return visit for Sunday brunch my family welcomes the boisterous atmosphere, which drowns out the noise while we wait almost 45 minutes for our meals to arrive. Bloody Marys and mimosas flow freely at a bargain-rate $3 each, calming the adults' growling stomachs. The boys enjoy their Nutella-stuffed french toast ($9.95), which can also be filled with peanut butter and banana or strawberries and cream. My wife's breakfast burrito ($7.95) is big enough for two, but lacks distinctive flavor. My Cajun beni ($11.95), is a decadent layering of puff pastry, spicy andouille sausage, fried green tomatoes, onions and peppers, topped with poached eggs and a rich, lemony hollandaise sauce. For the record, it wasn't until I was in my teens that I realized it wasn't called holiday sauce, because it graced our table every Christmas on eggs Benedict.
If I still lived in the neighborhood, I could see myself making an occasional visit to Metro Grill for its reasonable prices and great service. But there's lots of competition nearby. And while its menu delivers on some dishes, consistency might help make even more converts.
301 N. Robinson St.
Dinner nightly beginning at 5.
Brunch Sundays 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.