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Working Lunch: Lulabelle’s Café 

This hopping spot inside the Project 1 retail space is too good not to share.

click to enlarge The Jessie:  marinated roast beef, cheddar, grilled red onions, garlic aioli and jalapeno relish. Served on brioche.

Scott Elmquist

The Jessie: marinated roast beef, cheddar, grilled red onions, garlic aioli and jalapeno relish. Served on brioche.

After my first visit to Lulabelle’s Café, my companion and I were singing its praises everywhere we went. Although I hadn’t even heard of the place before getting this assignment — in my defense, it’s tucked away inside a decorator’s wonderland — I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw for the next few weeks just how impressed I’d been by my meals.

All the people I spoke to seemed grateful for the tip except one, an accountant who works in the West End. “Don’t go giving it a great review,” he insisted half seriously. “It’s crowded enough now, and I don’t need anyone else knowing about it.”

Vibe

Located inside Project 1, a retail space devoted to furniture and furnishings from antique to midcentury modern, Lulabelle’s Café has a vibe that swings just as wide as the merchandise out front. Part Old-World charm — think botanical prints and shabby-chic accessories — and part sleekly modern — white and black laminate tables, a cork wall, ergonomic chairs — the cafe has an appeal and coziness that stops short of coming across as precious.

Before I go any further, here’s some insider intel if you’re thinking of checking out Lulabelle’s for lunch. The cafe is one of those places that goes from zero to 60 in a flash, meaning that if you arrive in the noon hour, you could easily find every table filled. While there’s nothing wrong with savoring your meal at the spacious counter facing the kitchen, the eight stools are the backless sort, not everyone’s idea of a comfy place to relax at lunch. But show up just after 11 and the place is yours.

Menu

Because it also does catering and boxed lunches, Lulabelle’s menu is well thought out and delivers loads of choices. I can’t think of another eatery where I’m offered not one or two, but five soups of the day, including such appealing belly warmers as Brunswick stew, pumpkin bisque, a standout vegetable and quinoa, tomato, Thai chicken and potato. For that matter, I was as dazzled by having four quiche options to pick from as I was by the bacon, apple and cheddar quiche I eventually chose from the mouth-watering selections.

Pressed to recommend one of the hot sandwiches, I’d have a difficult time choosing between the Marjorie — turkey, Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on marbled rye — and the Jessie, a behemoth of marinated roast beef, cheddar, grilled red onions, garlic aioli and jalapeño relish barely contained on a brioche bun. When it comes to plate mates, both the garlicky white bean salad and the creamy potato salad are worthy sides.

Service

If these servers don’t love their jobs, they sure are friendly and attentive people with good attitudes. Simply listing the array of daily specials — soups, quiches and sandwiches — is a demonstration of superior memory skills and these servers are kind enough to repeat it all when one or both of us had trouble making up our minds. Food was thoughtfully coursed out so our hot sandwiches didn’t cool while we finished our soup or salad, a rarity at lunch.

Workability

As a place to have a lunchtime meeting, Lulabelle’s rates high for its comfortable vibe and top-notch food. Yes, it has Wi-Fi, but I didn’t see any outlets should you need to charge your laptop. And because the lunchtime rush is so concentrated, I wouldn’t suggest settling in at a table during peak time. Our server told us things drop off markedly around 1:30, although since the cafe closes at 3, camping out all afternoon to finish answering emails or writing a report isn’t an option.

Speed

Ten to 12 minutes from ordering to arrival seems completely reasonable, especially considering the sheer number of people in the cafe, with soup or salad showing up within about five minutes. In other words, you could count on being in and out during a typical lunch hour without feeling rushed.

Price

Given the quality and consistency of everything I ate, menu prices of $9-11 land Lulabelle’s squarely in the affordable category, with desserts such as the lavishly frosted red velvet cake we tried coming in at a wallet-friendly $5. And if there’s a better $4 cup of soup in town, please don’t hesitate to point me toward it.

For whatever reason, on all my visits, Lulabelle’s clientele skewed decidedly female, an interesting, if irrelevant, side note. Or maybe that’s another reason my accountant buddy is so fond of it. Sorry, friend, Lulabelle’s is too good not to share.

Lulabelle’s Café
Tuesday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
2012 Staples Mill Road
658-3617
Lulabellesrva.com

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