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Working Lunch: Taste

There’s a lot to love about this Virginia Beach-based gourmet grocery store and cafe.

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A sunny, family-owned institution from Virginia Beach has popped up in a former West End movie theater. Taste is your cafe, your juice bar, your wine bar, your gelato stand and your stop for a quick hostess gift, all rolled into one.

What started as a wine-and-cheese gift shop in Hampton Roads in 1973 has steadily evolved into nine cafe locations with the lighthearted tag line the Good Life. This is Taste's first foray into Richmond, and between the warm atmosphere, the friendly staff and the entire refrigerated case of pimento cheese, it's incredibly hard not to like.

Vibe

In all the best ways, this neighborhood sometimes feels like its own small town. If Grove Avenue is Main Street, then Taste is the corner general store. The fancy barbecue sauces, salsas, nut mixes and, of course, cheese straws, lining the walls hearken to the gourmet era of Southern Season. Rest in peace, Henrico outpost. And yes, Taste will curate your gift basket needs with any of these items and gift-wrapping is available for bottles of wine.

Your fellow diners during the week will be folks who work in the area, perhaps in real estate, and college students from nearby University of Richmond. The cafe's open space is accommodating of the young mothers with infants who live nearby, so expect strollers. Above all, there is a sense of community here, and less of an office-generated rush.

On just about any weekday, Taste will be buzzing. If you're looking for lunch with a large group, go for the community table in the center of the cafe, or the long high top in the back of the shop. There is quite a bit of outdoor seating, so in good weather, plan for crowds if only for a sandwich alfresco.

The Northender sandwich with turkey, bacon and havarti on French bread. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Northender sandwich with turkey, bacon and havarti on French bread.

Menu

Taste's menu features 18 signature sandwiches, three of them vegetarian, and with such fresh ingredients, it seems hard to go wrong. Pre-assembled salads, along with containers of potato salad, fruit, coleslaw and the aforementioned pimento cheese line the refrigerated case shelves alongside artisanal sodas, bottled cold-brew coffee and kombucha, but I wasn't tempted to stray from the hallmark sandwiches.

The Lafayette ($8.99) is light and delectable. Layers of thinly sliced brie, smoked bacon, romaine, baby spinach and tomato are carefully stacked on a pillow of soft french bread. The basil mayo adds a drippy zest to each bite. This will be a favorite long into the summer.

The Lynnhaven ($8.99) is one of the few sandwiches that's listed as heated. It was mildly warm, but more impressively, it served up an exceptionally seasoned roasted chicken breast with pimento cheese, smoked bacon, spinach and tomato on crisp ciabatta.

Six breakfast sandwiches are available all day, including Ain't No Betty, Taste's take on avocado toast, with smashed 'cado, sunflower seeds, sea salt and olive oil on multigrain bread. The Pompadour ($5.99) was sublime: a sage chicken sausage with fried egg, provolone and tangy dressing packed on a flaky circular croissant.

If the menu options are too daunting, you can select from a lengthy list of ingredients to create your own sandwich or salad for $7.29. Some ingredients, like whipped goat cheese hardwood-smoked bacon, cost an extra dollar, and any additional veggies after four are 59 cents each. Make it a meal by adding a bag of Route 11 chips and a fountain drink to any sandwich for $3.49 more.

SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Service

Taste's order format builds on the success of local fast-casual spots like Urban Farmhouse, but adds a level of conscientious service that sees you through the whole meal.

Secure a table first, if you can. Cashiers at the counter will take your order and then hand you a a number on a stand to place at your table. Five to 10 minutes later, your sandwich, wrapped in white butcher paper, will come out on a lined metal tray. Servers are delightfully diligent and return to clear away your plates almost as soon as they see you are finished.

Workability

Taste is ideal for a casual meeting with a client or a group. On one Friday afternoon visit, I met a group of five colleagues — we had no trouble finding a table, nor did we have to wait much longer than a few minutes for our meals. Given how quick the service is, and the fluidity of the process, one party can order in waves and all still dine together.

Taste is also one of the few independently owned lunch establishments that will take on the task of feeding your large business lunch or retreat. The boxed lunches and platters can be ordered for six or more with 24 hours' notice.

Speed

Street parking on Grove and Libbie avenues can be tough to come by at lunchtime, but there's a parking lot behind the building.

Everyone I encountered on staff was upbeat, helpful and lightning fast. When I popped in for lunch at 12:30 p.m. on a Friday, the line ahead of me moved quickly. Ahead-of-time online ordering is an option for eight of Taste's locations, and the feature will soon be available at the Westhampton spot.

And now that it's patio season, outdoor seating is available both in the front and the back, thus making more tables available to the hungry lunch crowds.

Smashed avocado on multigrain bread - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Smashed avocado on multigrain bread

Price

Overall, value is solid when it comes to the sandwiches, which cost from $7.29-$9.99. Sandwiches are hearty, but not overstuffed. No leftovers necessary. There is always a weekly special called Peter's Pick after founder Peter Coe, which includes chips and a fountain drink for $9.99. This is your best value.

However, add-ons might bring your bill up to around $20. Some charges seem surprising: $3 for a single chocolate-chip cookie or marble brownie, $2 for a dill pickle, and $3 for a flavored seltzer water dubbed Italian soda. Smoothies and pressed juices hover around $7-$9, and prices of espresso drinks are comparable to other coffee shops in the city. All wines by the glass are $6, and bottles are also affordable.

Though I still miss the beloved old Westhampton Theatre, Taste is charming, and I will be back on any day of the week. Everything I tried was notably fresh — and fast. And in addition to a working lunch, Taste will make your dinner, too: after 6 p.m., meals in the refrigerated case are 50 percent off. Or for now, buy a bottle of wine and a cheese platter, lounge on one of those couches and head back to the office tomorrow. S

Taste
5706 Grove Ave.
362-0504
taste.online
Mondays - Saturdays 9 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Sundays 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

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