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Just a little more work on the food, and downtown Roanoke will have an artsy, eclectic addition.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Waitress Danielle Ward serves customers at 501 Speakeasy in Roanoke.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
The Muffaletta sandwich features roasted pork with Genoa salami, olive spread, fresh mozzarella and provolone. Our reviewer’s sandwich was missing the olive spread.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
The word “speakeasy” is a Prohibition-era term referring to a place where alcohol is served illegally, but at 501 Speakeasy, a new restaurant in downtown Roanoke, it is meant to encourage people to gather and talk in a comfortable environment. This restaurant/coffee shop, which opened in June at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Fifth Street , serves breakfast, tapas (small plates), salads, and sandwiches accompanied by a full service espresso bar, Virginia craft beers, live music and local art.
When I joined friends there recently for Sunday brunch , we were lucky to get the last open table. The restaurant is a small space with a handful of tables, as well as a bar with classic chrome diner-style stools. There’s also a couch and coffee table with magazines and board games — a great place to enjoy coffee or a beer.
Our efficient, friendly server got us started with water, hot chocolate ($2.50), and excellent cappuccinos ($2.75). One friend chose the apple pie French toast brunch special , which arrived topped with syrup, a generous amount of sauteed fresh apples and a dollop of whipped cream. We all took a taste and gave it a big thumbs up. The rest of us chose egg dishes, which were not as successful. In the omelette ($5.95), the egg and cheese croissant ($4.75) and the classic breakfast combo (eggs, toast and bacon, $5.50), the eggs were browned , tough and bland. The bacon was tasty and the omelette fillings were generous, but the eggs were unappealing enough that none of us finished our meal.
I stopped in at 501 the next week to pick up sandwiches for lunch. I ordered the roast pork sandwich with chipotle slaw and vinegar BBQ sauce ($8.50), and the muffaletta sandwich ($8.50). Both were built on delicious focaccia bread from Bread Craft, a downtown Roanoke bakery.
The roast pork was savory and had just the right amount of vinegar sauce. The slaw added a nice, peppery crunch. The muffaletta, however, surprised me. A classic muffaletta features cured meats and cheese topped with a relish of pickled vegetables and olives. This sandwich had a generous amount of the same roast pork and thin slivers of salami and cheese, but I hunted for the olive relish and found none. What I got was a good roast pork sandwich, but it was not a muffaletta.
Most recently I joined a couple of friends for dinner at 501. Our server was excellent, knowledgeable about the food and drink, and happy to accommodate special requests. The beer list features a dozen Virginia craft beers (eight draft, four bottles/cans), and they plan to offer Virginia wines soon.
We began by sharing three tapas (small plates): roasted red pepper hummus ($5.50), a chicken taco ($3.50) and the braised greens with cornbread ($5.50). The hummus was attractively presented with pita triangles and cucumber wedges for dipping, but was bland. The chicken taco was a bargain — two corn tortillas, a heaping portion of chicken, homemade salsa and a wedge of lime. But the rave reviews of the evening were for the greens and cornbread. The kale had a rich, savory flavor with a little tang of vinegar, and the sweet cornbread and wedges of fresh tomato were perfect accompaniments.
When we were ready to order our next course, we were disappointed that the burek salad, Cuban taco, and roasted pork sandwich were not available. We settled on different sandwiches — the grilled feta with lettuce, tomato, and olive spread ($7.50), the grilled veggie with mushrooms, peppers, onions, avocado and provolone ($7.50), and the special of the day, a portobello mushroom melt ($7.50). Sandwiches come with a choice of chipotle slaw, blue corn chips or a side salad. We enjoyed the sandwiches, though we all commented that we’d prefer a little less bread (French style bread this time, not focaccia) and lettuce, and more of the savory fillings.
Even after the large meal, we craved a bite of something sweet, so we ordered a piece of chocolate chess pie to share. The desserts are homemade by a local baker, but this piece of pie was served cold from the fridge and lacked the rich chocolate flavor we had hoped to find. I finished with an excellent espresso ($1.75), made with locally roasted coffee from Star City Coffee Co.
I like the concept of 501 Speakeasy. I think the emphasis on local food, beer, coffee, music and art in a casual, affordable venue is a winning combination. The artsy, eclectic place could be a great addition to the downtown scene, but there are some problems with the food that need to be resolved .
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