Something curious is happening on the first floor of the old Cokesbury building. If you work downtown or frequent the Dominion Arts Center, it’s likely that you’ve driven past this block an endless number of times, watching it come back to life.
Pop’s Market on Grace is part of this accelerated revitalization. It’s an innovative hybrid of cafe, neighborhood bakery and Italian restaurant. Employing a similar formula to the one that spawned half-dozen Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe locations, Pop’s serves appealing and affordable bites, ready to take to-go. It’s less of a market and more of an artisanal approach to the fast-casual meal. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the market does it all. And owner Josh Wright does it well.
The long dining hall is filled with tables of four, opening up to a lounge at the end for newspaper-reading or piano-playing pleasure. The tables, floors and a beautiful winding bar against the windows are dark, reclaimed wood. A few shelves near the counter are sprinkled with some antique trinkets, bottles of wine and various canned vegetables.
Perhaps taking aesthetic cues from its popular neighbors, it has the vintage vibe of Greenleaf’s Pool Room a few blocks away, and the minimalist-yet-cozy warmth of Pasture on the other side of Grace Street.
The chalkboard menu changes slightly from day to day but not much. Breakfast visits are sunny and bright, and this is partially thanks to the high ceilings and arching windows — much like the vast feel of the Quirk Hotel lobby — and Wright’s mother behind the counter, who instantly makes every customer feel at home.
The bacon, egg and cheese bagel is a superb way to start the day ($4.50). Nowhere else downtown do I find a soft, homemade bagel, perfectly crisped inside, with tender scrambled eggs and melted cheese this good.
An equally good option is a breakfast biscuit with house-made sage sausage, egg and cheese ($4.50), with a hot cup of Rostov’s coffee. The biscuit falls apart in your hands when you pick it up for a bite, and the savory sage sausage complements the egg and buttery sweetness of the biscuit.
For those needing a #treatyourself moment, try the french toast rounds with maple butter ($5.50). Yes, that’s seven soft french baguette slices dipped in just enough egg to gently sear on a griddle, which are then liberally doused in syrup. Is this my new normal? I’m delighted that there’s an establishment that makes casually dining on french toast — rich, still warm, packed lovingly to-go — a reality while at my office desk prepping for a meeting.
Lunch offerings are similarly handcrafted with fresh ingredients and a thoughtful flavor profile. The kale and white bean mushroom soup ($6.75) hits on all cylinders, boasting a rich broth, texture and a trendy vegetable.
An Italian inflection appears in the sandwiches at lunch, but Mediterranean cuisine is found predominantly in Wright’s dinner offerings. Those lost, forlorn fans of the closed-but-not-forgotten Aziza’s on Main will find solace here.
The house-made pappardelle in a beef ragu ($14) is light, peppered with juicy morsels of beef, button mushroom slices and zucchini shavings, topped with Parmesan. The pasta has a bit of a bite — truly al dente — unlike much fresh pasta that can end up gummy. It’s delectable and filling, and at an impressively reasonable price for a fine-dining-caliber dinner.
The pan-seared kale with almonds, shallots and garlic ($6.50) is a thoughtful small-plate alternative — add juicy roasted chicken ($3.50) for an Italian stir-fry. The pan-seared hanger steak comes out of the kitchen beautifully displayed, cooked medium-rare, with red roasted potatoes and mushrooms, a bed of that same kale, wilted with flavor, and garlic toast ($23).
And now it’s time to talk about the chocolate chip cookies. Chef Kyle Posten favors the dark chocolate school of thought, and I like that. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and seemingly equal parts dough and chocolate wafer make this cookie satisfying and not too sweet. If I were handing them out, Pop’s, I would say, has the chocolate chip cookie award locked up. Parking can be difficult to find around Fifth and East Grace streets, but this is a cookie worth circling the block a few times.
Pop’s is a boon for this part of town. Many of the early online reviews were penned by travelers, most likely because of its proximity to downtown hotels. Almost all of them lament, “If I were from Richmond, I’d be in here every week.” And since my first visit, I’ve been hooked. S
Pop’s Market on Grace
415 E. Grace St.
Tuesday-Saturday 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.