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Ode to a Soda Fountain

In the beginning, Anna, a massage therapist, and her husband, Brandon, a bagpiper for a rockabilly band, dreamed about constructing a sensory-deprivation chamber: a pitch-dark, soundless room, the air maintained at body temperature, to help users reach an alpha state during meditation. Somehow, that idea lost its charm, and another, slightly more extravagant fantasy replaced it: the opening of an old-fashioned ice-cream shop. They began collecting equipment—a 1936 Bastian Blessing soda fountain (because you can't make an ice-cream soda worth a damn without one), a Kelvinator ice-cream cabinet, a Multimixer, wooden booths, and Formica tables from the '40s—and scored a prime location in Roanoke's hip Grandin Village, in the neighborhood's oldest building, which, once upon a time, had been a library.

Armed with a sixty-eight-dollar copy of Let's Sell Ice Cream—published by the Ice Cream Merchandising Institute in 1947—they began selecting recipes and assembling a menu. The result featured drawings by Anna's father, based on the illustrations of anthropomorphized goodies in the aforementioned book (dancing cones, a chorus line of soda glasses, milk shakes with smiley faces) as well as a pleasantly befuddling list of goodies—long forgotten by most of today's ice-cream establishments—including Rickeys, Broadways, Hobokens, Canary Island Specials, and NY Egg Creams.

The subsequent purchase of an industrial-sized Toastmaster griddle inspired visions of grilled sandwiches. Using bread from the Wildflour Bakery in downtown Roanoke (most of Pop's ingredients are local, even the cones), Anna and Brandon started experimenting and generated ten different amalgamations of grilled cheese, which included the Swiss Melt (avocado, artichoke hearts, Dijon mustard, and horseradish with Swiss cheese); the Southwestern (Monterey Jack, sharp cheddar, black-bean spread, onion, and tomato); the Sharply Sweet (cinnamon cream cheese, sharp cheddar, and apples); the #9 (smoked-Gouda pimento cheese); the French (blue cheese, onion, and figs); the Greek (feta, mozzarella, olives, tomato, pepperoncini peppers, and onion); and, for those who aren't feeling cheesy, the Hold the Cheese (grilled peanut butter and banana).

The sandwiches arrive in plastic baskets lined with wax paper, a silver-dollar-sized fried potato formed to resemble a smiley face, but no chips or fries. Brandon claimed that this "den of decadence" needed a more nutritional—and more fun—side order, so they turned to a truly vintage snack: popcorn. Popped in a big glass machine (there's a life-size cutout of the head of Batboy taped to the side), it's then sprinkled with the homemade flavoring of the day: honey mustard, ranch, nacho cheese, pizza, or Parmesan. Since Brandon had been the soup chef at Roanoke's now-defunct Angler's, and because it's inhospitable to offer grilled cheese without soup, Pop's serves tomato bisque every day, plus a special soup du jour—maybe African peanut, cream of asparagus, Thai curry, or Indian lentil.

While you're waiting for your food to arrive—or for it to digest afterward—you can retrieve a game or a book from an old bookcase in the corner. Play checkers, Candy Land, or the Raiders of the Lost Ark board game. Consult a MAD magazine anthology, or peruse the big purple-and-gold Ripley's Believe It or Not! book, a compendium of weirdness that includes a woman who can pop her eyeballs out of their sockets. Or visit the telephone booth in the corner, which lights up inside when you close the door, where, recently, seven young ballerinas crammed themselves in an attempt to set some kind of record.

If you're feeling especially bold, have a seat at the counter, and while Brandon's making your sandwich, ask him about "The Creature." Legend has it that this thing's kept in the basement and that, even though it's dead, it's fearsome to behold and emits a foul, slightly sweetish stench. Of course, Brandon might or might not have any idea what you're talking about.

Anyway, you're not here for a freak show. You're here to indulge: maybe a #9, a bowl of the bisque, and a Canary Island Special. Hit Pop's on the right night and you could join a knitting group, participate in a rock-paper-scissors tournament, jam out to vintage LPs on record night, or catch a live band (the Wright Kids, a group of siblings ranging from four to thirteen, play bluegrass here on occasion). Just don't get too rowdy. Brandon's got a squirt bottle underneath the counter, and if you can't hold your sugar, he's likely to fire a couple of warning shots, to remind you that, believe it or not, there are limits to how crazy you can get.

 


 

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