When Catholic cardinals elect a new pope, white smoke billows out of a chimney atop the Vatican. Appropriately, you instantly notice the smoker in the parking lot of Roy Pope Grocery, perfuming the space outside with a fragrant blend of burning wood and myriad animal parts. The enormous tank-like contraption is one of many readily apparent changes to the beloved nearly 80-year-old grocery store. They come courtesy of its new owners, led by smoked meat impresario Lou Lambert and owner-operator/longtime Lambert protege Chris Reale.
Roy Pope was among the most painful casualties of the early pandemic days. To Westsiders, “The Pope” staked out a unique position in the area, existing in the overlap between a high-end grocery store, boutique retailer, reasonably priced delicatessen, and grab-and-go bodega. Where else could you buy a $200 bottle of Caymus Cabernet and a $4 loaf of Mrs. Baird’s white bread in one trip?
The venerable grocery store didn’t stay closed long. In April 2020, less than a month after it shuttered, the new owners took over the space and set out to revitalize the 7,200-square-foot building.
The Lambert-Reale culinary combo, which dates back to Lambert’s Steak, Seafood & Whiskey, has been busy over the past few months. In addition to breathing new life into Roy Pope, the duo has also spearheaded the second coming of soon-to-be-remodeled Paris Coffee Shop and, as recently as last year, helmed Campo Smokehouse after Flores Barbecue closed.
Lambert is no stranger to the Fort Worth culinary cognoscenti. The TCU grad helmed the kitchen at Reata for a time before forging his solo reputation as a chef/pitmaster extraordinaire at his first namesake eatery in Austin. Before Franklin’s became a cultural phenomenon, Austinites were lining up for Lambert’s brisket.
The updated Roy Pope is decidedly sleeker, boasting an openness and feng shui that the old version lacked. Adding to the modernized feel of the modest-sized room is a wine/coffee bar, newer shelves, an attractive fenced-in patio, and updated equipment. Everything looks new, bright, and clean — that’s not to say the old version was filthy, just well-worn. The new version looks to be in the Eatzi’s mold — with a wine selection that rivals Central Market’s in size.
If you’re wondering why restaurants are closing because they lack staff, it’s because Roy Pope hired everyone in the service industry. A small army of staffers buzzed hurriedly behind the impressively stocked deli counter and open kitchen on a recent weekday. Though pleasant and professional, most of the people preparing and serving food that day were unmasked.
The menu is separated into hot items — which are mostly made in advance and displayed behind a sneeze guard — and an impressive-looking list of sandwiches. On the afternoon I visited, a line of about a dozen people filed snuggly next to a neat shelf stocked with, among other items, a box of honey-roasted pecans and various cookies. Though my guest and I were tempted by the many treats, we stood pat, focused on the menu that hangs over the counter.
Roy Pope Grocery
Chicken salad sandwich $8
Prime rib sandwich $14.50
Power green salad $11
Usually, eating a meal inside a deli/grocer is a little like reading a novel at a bookstore — you can, but it’s not always ideal. Roy Pope’s modest indoor dining room of about 10 tables was plenty spacious and comfortable. The room was about half-full on the day we arrived, and we never felt intruded upon by other diners.
The daily soup offering, blackened salmon chowder, brimmed with piquant peppery notes punctuated by specks of thyme. Thick slabs of salmon bobbed alongside roasted corn and bits of potato. The soup was served in a paper cup, with only the standard-issue plastic utensils — all of which is customary at grocery delis.
The power green salad, snatched from the grab-and-go refrigerator just opposite the counter, packed a garden’s worth of ingredients into a clear plastic container. A tasteful mélange of arugula, avocado, baby kale, baby spinach, carrots, celery, chickpeas, feta cheese, and radishes offered a kaleidoscopic feast for the eyes. The savory tones of the salad were offset by the subtle sweetness of the accompanying honey vinaigrette — so good, you’ll want to drink it out of a glass.
The star of our visit was unquestionably the prime rib sammy, stuffed with thin slices of velvety beef covered in a gooey layer of provolone. Juices soaked through the fresh-tasting rye bread in a downright Caligulan display of messy decadence. The blend of onion jam and horseradish sauce added a game-changing layer of sweet-spicy flavor that balanced the creamy/tender notes of the meat and cheese. This was the sort of crave-worthy bite you think about for days after.
Though overshadowed by the prime rib, the chicken salad was a solid if unspectacular offering — a nod to the ladies-who-lunch crowd that will no doubt keep The Pope’s Chardonnay-by-the-glass supply critically low. My guest found the dish to be on the dry side, while I preferred the kitchen’s restraint. Flavors of thyme popped throughout the mix, and heirloom tomatoes and romaine lettuce added a welcome juicy/crunchy texture.
The new iteration of Roy Pope compares favorably with Eatzi’s and Central Market, and it offers a homier vibe that its two competitors can’t match. While the local grocer may not be a destination kitchen for people living outside of the neighborhood, its elevated menu of classic deli fare and hot entrees should more than impress its target audience of Westsiders.
This may not be your grandfather’s Roy Pope, but that’s a good thing. This version is a huge improvement.
Roy Pope Grocery
2300 Merrick St, FW.
817-732-2863. 7am-9pm daily.
All major credit cards accepted.