It's my own fault. Nothing spoils an outing more than unmet expectations, and in my imagination I had credited Popkin Tavern with three assumptions.
The first was that this new, visually stunning eatery was furthering the work of its neighbors Comfort and Twenty-Seven in transforming downtown Broad Street into a destination-dining hot spot. A cursory glance at the menu deflated this belief: pizza, burgers, wings.
Of course, it is unfair to judge a restaurant on what it isn't. At Popkin Tavern, the rich decor a nod to the furniture store the space used to be spiced up with enormous suspended red lanterns, mahogany booths and a softly lit balcony for lounging hinted at fine dining, but the pool tables and half a dozen large-screen TVs made me realize that the name was to be taken literally. That's cool. I could switch gears. This place was about quality bar food. Or so I assumed.
There is a standard list of reasons why food will be sent back; both line cooks and servers should mutter it in their sleep: Don't serve anything that tastes lousy. Don't serve anything past its prime freshness. Don't serve hot entrées cold. Know your meat temperatures (the customer does). And don't misrepresent entrées in your descriptions.
At least one item on the Popkin menu violated two of these rules. Everyone likes a good chicken pot pie, but how disappointing is it when the dish that arrives is neither good nor a chicken pot pie. The impostor was a bowl of very dry chicken stew (apparently this had spent time under a heat lamp or broiler) topped with a pouf of hollow, flavorless crust. Odd and unpleasant.
The menu has some winners. Entrées range from $6.95 for a burrito to $15.95 for a no-frills sirloin with hand-cut fries, but most appetites will be better served by the appetizer and sandwich sections of the menu. What Popkin bills as a burger was, in fact, a burger, and a good one, and there are two equally tasty signature options. Ditto the marinated flank steak sandwich with peppers, though something tells me the marinating happened elsewhere. The pizza was decent. The jerk chicken skewers with fruit chutney might be the best bet.
Some bar food basics missed the mark. The spinach-artichoke dip was filling, tasty and a no-brainer, but follow the directions on the back of a Lipton soup-mix box and you can make an at-home version that rivals what Popkin is serving for $5.95. Ditto the tostadas; the chips were limp, the cheese seemed less than fresh, and the salsa was oniony, indicating it had been around for a while.
Through some fundamental misunderstanding of the laws of nature, the menu offers no desserts. On one visit the excuse was, "They're still working out the dessert menu." What? No in-the-meantime options? On another visit a server said that the owners Spare Time Inc. never serve desserts. What an odd claim to fame.
OK, even if Popkin is not about great food, Spare Time Inc. operates a number of bowling and billiards joints in Chicago (this is its first venture outside the Windy City). The emphasis is on entertainment meaning games and beverages not on food. Ten dollars will get you an hour on good, wide tables with plenty of space to shoot. And I liked the idea of an elegant, low-smoke environment where I could eat some filling, if mediocre, snacks and watch a game. Richmond could use that.
So I invited my father-in-law to accompany me to Popkin to watch my hometown Bears in the NFL playoffs. Assumption number three: A tavern with walls of screens would be open on a Sunday during the playoffs. No such luck. Starting this month, though, that changes, and the tavern will be in business seven days a week.
Maybe the owners understand that the VCU-to-MCV corridor's best attempt at revitalization will lie in its diversity of offerings. Maybe Popkin's kitchen is just a nod to Virginia's no-bar law, and the place will survive thrive, even as a midpriced extended happy-hour haunt for the downtown work crowd and residents of the building's luxury apartments. But it wouldn't hurt to hedge their beautifully designed bet with a killer menu, a rocking kitchen staff and at least one humble dessert. S
Popkin Tavern ($) NSS
123 W. Broad St.
Kitchen hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.;
Saturday, 4:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30-9 p.m.
Bar open until closing.