I didn't know a lot of people who went to Freckles restaurant on Patterson Avenue, but I was a regular there for years because I worked nearby.
In the past five years, I'd been more of a semi-regular, but the staff always knew me (and my order) and I still saw a lot of the same faces that I had seen there for years.
Their breakfast business had a devout following, maybe because they were one of the few places you could always get brains with your eggs.
Or maybe it was just their price points.
The place had looked like a bad rec-room from the 70s with smoke-stained wails and ceiling tiles (with ads on them!), an obviously homemade bar and family and dog pictures everywhere.
The bathroom was literally a hole in the wall, barely big enough for a toilet.
The atmosphere screamed old school family restaurant and the owner and her son were almost always there, although in recent years, her health had deteriorated and all he wanted was to sell the restaurant and finally have a life independent of it.
The reason I kept coming back was twofold and probably unlikely to have mattered to anyone else in RVA.
I always got the chef salad (minus the ham and cheese) with blue cheese dressing.
Big deal, right?
Well, actually it was because the owner made the most amazing croutons, big and sauteed in oil with nothing crouton-like about them except that they began as bread.
They were barely crunchy because of how much oil they contained.
Secondly, she made her own blue cheese dressing and I use the term dressing loosely because hers was mainly chunks of blue cheese with just enough of a creamy binder to prevent it from being a bowl of cheese chunks.
It was the best blue cheese dressing I have ever had anywhere and I've eaten a lot of it.
So, with the opening of the Grill at Patterson & Libbie, I was naturally curious to see what changes had been wrought, both in terms of the interior and the menu.
A friend and I lunched there today, not sure what to expect, but hoping for the best since she lives in the neighborhood.
Let's just say the renovation is tansformative.
The blue pleather booths are gone, replaced by larger and lovelier booths,
The bar is no longer low-hanging and seedy looking.
There are even two spacious bathrooms.
The waitresses all appear to be seasoned vets and everybody was hustling.
With their patio, they're sure to be a popular destination now that the weather is nice.
Since there was no chef salad on the menu (no brains, either, and that's a real loss in terms of an offbeat breakfast option), I decided to try the wedge salad.
It wouldn't have croutons, but it would have blue cheese.
When our server brought it to me, it was two large iceberg lettuce wedges drizzled in balsamic and a side dish of dressing.
Looking at it as she set it down, she observed, "They forgot the bacon," which was funny, since it's a three-ingredient dish.
She hurried right off and returned immediately with a bowl containing five slices of bacon (a bit flabby to be crumbled, but a generous amount) and I realized that, oh! this was a deconstructed wedge salad.
No matter, I set about shredding my bacon and sprinkling it over my wedges.
The blue cheese dressing was quite good and by that I mean it wasn't as magnificent as Sue's, but it had a good amount of chunks in it, just not as many as in hers.
The dressing was slightly sweeter than hers, closer to the typical blue cheese dressings, but still better than most.
My friend had the three-cheese grilled cheese with coleslaw and got a side of mac and cheese.
It was the baked version; she deemed it quite good and she's a mac and cheese snob, so that's a good sign.
Looking around at the customers, I actually recognized a few from the Freckles days; others looked like neighborhood residents.
They don't have their liquor license yet, but they stay open until midnight Monday through Saturday (Sundays until 3), so I expect they will do a brisk business.
Entrees are served after 5:00 and not one was over ten bucks.
Whether or not they draw the fanatic breakfast following remains to be seen; they no longer have the center filled with tables they can combine to accommodate large groups.
They wisely serve breakfast until 3:00, so expect to see a carafe of syrup and assorted jams on your table if you go in for lunch.
And although there aren't any brains for breakfast anymore, they do have bologna (as well as city ham and country ham), so you can still have a non-standard side for your eggs.
I have to admit, I loved what Freckles represented.
Their inexpensive, old-fashioned way of doing business was downright quaint by the 21st century.
They even kept candy bars for sale by the register in case you needed something sweet to go.
When a regular need something and the staff was busy, we knew we could just go grab the cracker basket or a roll-up and they'd appreciate it.
So maybe the Grill at Patterson & Libbie is just the logical evolution of what a neighborhood place has to be these days.
I'll go back, but I'll also probably always compare it to what it was as Freckles.
Damn! Now I'm sounding like a Richmonder, always bemoaning change.
Luckily the blue cheese dressing didn't change too much.