Crossing Into Jackson 

Meatloaf as a barometer of social progress.

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Not too many years ago, after touring the abandoned National Theater downtown, I asked one of the city's leading supporters of the arts if the building might be restored as a new home for the symphony or another performing arts organization. The answer was no, because whites were uncomfortable crossing to the north side of Broad Street.

Well, times are changing — a refurbished National is reopening — and a mixed-race crowd regularly patronizes the art galleries and restaurants on both sides of Broad at the western edge of downtown.

Now the phenomenon has jumped farther north into Jackson Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood.

Building on the successes of Croaker's Spot and The Corner Bar and Grill, the Marshall Street Café, which opened March 1, takes the culinary scene there to a new level.

Gary Boss, whose Boss-Chi Catering is one of Richmond's most prominent minority-owned enterprises (clients include the Landmark Theater, Richmond International Airport and SunTrust), has opened one of the prettiest little restaurants in town.

Located in a two-story brick building at the corner of Marshall and Adams streets, the café's eclectic menu offers everything from burgers and meatloaf for regulars to steaks and seafood worth a venture.

The café is a team effort, with Boss and his catering partner, Nigerian Chima (Chi) Ugworji, handling the business side, while Joey Stokes moved over from the catering side to run the kitchen and Lindsay Osborne runs the front.

Osborne is responsible for the cheery décor, which features floral-shaped ceiling fans, tiny lights over the front window, and yellow napkins and fresh flowers that match the color in a stained-glass window high on the outside wall.

With just a few exceptions, the food is as pleasant as the surroundings.

Entrées range from $12 for a two-inch-high meatloaf baked with carrots, celery and onions and topped with a smoky wild-mushroom sauce to $22 for crab cakes with a rémoulade sauce. The latter also is available as an appetizer or a sandwich.

A recent catch of the day was a potato-encrusted tilapia topped with salsa and accompanied by thin slices of fried potato; another night the tilapia was paired with shrimp.

Portions are large. Grilled chicken breast with bacon, mushrooms, peppers, herbs and cream sauce over bow-tie pasta cries out for a take-home carton.

The tomatoes and potatoes that accompany several dishes are picked fresh from Osborne's grandfather's garden.

Appetizers ($5-$9) include spicy chicken wings covered with a brown-sugar barbecue glaze for dipping in blue cheese, ranch or garlicky vinaigrette sauces; fried pork egg rolls; potato skins baked with cheddar, bacon and green onions; mozzarella sticks; and nachos.

The typical house salad gets a distinctive touch, garnished with a long, thin slice of cucumber.

For lighter appetites, there are half a dozen sandwiches, including a Black Angus quarter-pounder, a po'boy and Philly steak.

Vegetarians can choose from a soy burger or vegetable medley.

One disappointment was a side of soggy french fries. Another was an appetizer special, Thai shrimp, which was slightly undercooked but distracted by an oily chili sauce that exploded in the mouth.

Desserts get special care. Bread pudding with whiskey sauce and brownies with strawberries and sauce are ample for sharing.

Each weeknight offers something special: Mondays, steak and wine; Tuesdays, tequila and taco; Wednesdays, burger and beer; Thursday, $1 off bottled beer; and Friday, fish and fries.

There is an L-shaped bar where smoking is permitted after 10 p.m., and soft jazz on Friday and Saturday beginning at 9 p.m. A weekend brunch is planned for late summer.

Before striking out on his own, Boss, 56 — a native of North Carolina who's been in Richmond 17 years — worked for Marriott and Thompson Hospitality, where he catered the inaugurals of four Virginia governors.

On the most recent First Friday, the place was jammed with a diverse crowd of CEOs, artists and folks from many Richmond neighborhoods. Artificial boundaries were nowhere in sight. And the food was terrific. S

Marshall Street Café ($$)
23 W. Marshall St.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

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