It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway!), the fast-casualization – an industry buzzword for "fast food, but healthier for you" – of dining in the U.S. is happening and its in your face. Au Bon Pain, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Shake Shack and the like all fall into the "fast casual" category, and they are virtually everywhere. Every new shopping center development has at least one (plus a Target. . . And a Bed, Bath & Beyond. And a Five Below, but I digress.) And I am not demonizing them, because I'll pull over at an Au Bon Pain for a cheese danish any day. And the turkey artichoke panini that Panera used to have on the menu was on point. I'm all for when corporate dining establishments realize that using as-fresh-as-possible ingredients in their menu items is good for everyone.
Countless locally owned take-out joints and on-the-go, mom-and-pop cafés in cites and towns across America pre-existed these omnipresent, fast casual eateries – they saw a good thing and sought to capitalize. It's the American way. What the Paneras and Chipotles of the world don't have is a sense of place or uniqueness. They are not "one-of-a-kind." Richmond's Sally Bell's Kitchen (708 West Grace Street), however, is singular.
The irony is (hopefully) not lost on anyone that Panera and Chipotle have set up shop within a stone's throw of Sally Bell's in the VCU-revitalized section of Grace. The adorable little take-out sells boxed lunches featuring all-time classic southern staples just like Granny use to make, like potato salad, macaroni salad, deviled eggs, 10+ flavors of cupcakes, and a variety of sandwiches, from chicken salad and pimento cheese to roast beef and Swiss and egg salad.
Walking through the dual-doored entrance, seeing the brightly frosted upside-down cupcakes lined up behind the glass, and peering back into the kitchen itself where the made-from-scratch magic happens, is an experience in itself. I like what I like, so I typically go for the chicken salad with potato salad side and chocolate with yellow batter cupcake. The box comes with a delicately wrapped deviled egg and pecan-topped cheese wafer. It's the perfect meal for a hot summer day, when your appetite gets worked up from the heat and you need some tasty carbs, starches and proteins to get you going again.
A testament to Sally Bell's originality in the culinary arts, not just in Richmond but nationally, is its recent honor by the James Beard Foundation, which named it an American Classic, recognizing it's "timeless appeal." Not long ago, Saveur glowingly referred to their lunches as "paradise in a box," and Southern Living listed it among "The South's Best Cheap Eats Under $10."
Sally Bell's has operated on Grace St. since 1924. About a year ago, it was reported that VCU purchased the property where they run the shop, and has plans to develop it down the road. No doubt many will be sad to see Sally Bell's move to a new location, because – and to use another industry buzzword – this modest sandwich shop and bakery is Grace Street's real "anchor tenant."
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