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A no-frills menu of simple Southern basics makes lunch at Johnson's Grill like attending a family reunion.

Down Home Cookin'


There's nothing fancy, or even remarkable, about , which sits humbly a few blocks behind the open-and-shut — and open-and-shut again — restaurants and clubs of Shockoe Bottom.

There's no Zagat rating, no Michelin star. You don't "do" lunch here. It's not a date spot. And it's on a little-traveled one-way section of East Franklin Street that most folks drive past while looking for parking to go somewhere else.

But since it opened 30 years ago, Johnson's Grill — or Mrs. Johnson's, as it is more affectionately known — has been a refuge for a family of regulars in search of three-squares-a-day. Until recently, you could get two of them here: Last year Myrtle Johnson, who at age 75 still does much of the cooking together with her son, Floyd, stopped making breakfast.

But you can still get lunch every weekday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Johnson's menu of fundamental, orthodox Southern home-cooking is geared to those who like fast decisions, fast service and a cheap lunch. There are only a handful of items, and none of them is more complicated than the briefest of descriptions will complete: fish, country steak, liver, pork chops, spareribs, meatloaf, chicken (breast, leg). Each is available either as a sandwich ($2.50-$4.25) or dinner plate ($4-$7.50).

[image-1](Hilary Benas / the dinner and you get to choose two vegetables: mac and cheese (it's a vegetable 'round here), lima beans, pickled beets, greens, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, coleslaw, honey carrots, cabbage, potato salad, yams and string beans. For an extra buck or so you can add a vegetable to a sandwich order.

I love hot lunch, so I had two thick slices of the homemade meatloaf, a blue-ribbon winner, with lumpy mashed potatoes, gravy and greens ("You want vinegar with your greens?" "Yes, ma'am."). My lunch companion, a Johnson's regular, had the fried salmon cakes, candied yams, limas and lemonade.

Food comes to your table on plastic divided cafeteria plates with Mrs. Johnson's soft and buttery yeast rolls on the side. Homemade peach cobbler and some nonhomemade items round out the dessert offerings. In my companion's words of high praise, the lunch was "hunky-dory."

Around 12:30 another wave of regulars filed in: suits, ad agency types, working folks, and a couple of police officers, evidence that Johnson's unchanging approach crosses the city's diverse quotidian routine.

A group of office workers, mostly women, who had just finished lunch stood outside the door making last-minute conversation before heading back to the sameness of their cubicles.

"It's like a family reunion," said my companion. "Lunch here

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