Groucho's was the candy store. It was forebodingly dim inside; the windows were painted over, the linoleum was dingy, and the old man who ran it, universally known as Groucho, was mean as hell. He'd yell at kids—suddenly, terrifyingly—for transgressions of nebulous nature. He also had a German shepherd, infinitely larger than you if you were small, that lay in wait behind the counter, only to leap up barking insanely at random moments, scaring the bejesus out of you, especially if you were small enough that, momentarily lost in your sugarlust, you'd forgotten about the existence of this dog. When I began running this gauntlet—with my brother, along with all the neighborhood kids from the big Catholic families that occupied the big Capitol Hill houses with the peeling paint and patchy yards back then—I'd only begun to read, and I thought the sign on the front said "GROUCHO'S." Years later, when I actually looked at it, it read, surprisingly, "GROCERIES."
I write from inside Groucho's right now. I'm sitting in a window seat with striped pillows; sunlight is flooding in. Framed photographs of spoons and eggs hang on pea-green walls, an old five-foot ladder acts as a magazine rack; galvanized buckets are full of branches, shelves are full of bottles of wine. The world must've done something right, because the new incarnation of Groucho is two blond angel-ladies, one laughing with the neighbors at the counter under the "ORDER HERE" sign, another mixing a batch of cookie dough in the back. They used to work at Carmelita together, Ericka Burke as a chef, Heather Earnhardt as a server. Their focus: simple cuisine, local ingredients. Their motto: "Always fresh goodness." Ericka grew up around here, I've heard; last Saturday (I've been here a lot: research), an older gentleman came in, and she hugged him, saying, "Hi, Dad."
Groucho's is now the Volunteer Park Cafe & Marketplace. (It was a few other things in between; none stuck.) What I am currently eating: a roast beef panini ($8.25), thin slices of tender meat, salty tang of rough-chopped green-olive paste, smoothness of gorgonzola, sweetness of caramelized onions. The bread (from Columbia City Bakery; croissants are from Le Fournil; all other baking is done on premises) bears picture-perfect toasty grill indentations; the grease factor is ideal. It is a sandwich of admirable complexity and massive goodness; it exceeds the most hopeful expectations I had harbored for it.
Everything else I have had here so far: brioche French toast ($8.95): two thick pieces ferrying a substantial quantity of ricotta filling, topped with pecan bits and caramelized banana, like cinnamon toast meets crème brûlée, rendering syrup totally superfluous, even better cold the next day. Brie and apple with lavender honey inside a croissant smashed down and warmed up on the panini grill ($4.95): a really, really good idea, ditto in reality. Prosciutto/fresh mozzarella/basil/Roma tomato quiche ($6.50): a little thin and uncustardy for my taste, a little dry around the edges from reheating, but with a superflaky crust with a big, swoopy edge. Prosciutto and egg panini with Gruyère ($7.25): not as amazing as the roast beef, but damn fine. Free-range chicken potpie ($10.95) with roasted root vegetables, tiny peas, whole cloves of garlic, heirloom potato, all under a football-shaped (and sized) puff-pastry crust: the stewy filling a bit sweet, grassy tasting, maybe from the parsnips. Two scones (currant with a hint of citrus, rosemary/parmesan, $2.50 each): both dense, buttery, laudably undry. One soft-in-the-middle chocolate-chip cookie with bits of apricot ($1.75): calmly being what those "Soft Baked" store-bought cookies long to be. One "Wine of the Week" sample of New Zealand sauvignon blanc: because it was there.
Things I will have here in the future: other panini. Phyllo mushroom tart with chèvre. Caesar salad with giant garlic-parmesan crouton. Soup, various. Yeast-raised waffles. Coffeecake muffin with streusel topping. Multicourse dinner with local wine pairings (occasional; the VPC&M is not open after five otherwise). "Wine of the Week" sample of French rosé (very shortly).
Kids are coming in—it's after school—there are jars of gumballs for them to buy, cookies galore. The one with the googly-thick glasses and cowboy boots could be me, time traveling; she's getting a chocolate croissant. In the back, over the refrigerator full of beverages, hangs a big weathered sign that says "GROCERIES."