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A restaurant renaissance in the Center City

Downtown’s latest bars, clubs and eateries feature hybrid offerings

If PopRoc and Fifth Frame are any indication, the future of restaurants and clubs in downtown Rochester is hybrid.

Like Radio Social, the club outside downtown that blended a Mediterranean menu with bowling – yes, bowling – in a former manufacturing plant off Atlantic Avenue, these new food and beverage businesses downtown are based on unusual pairings. (We’re defining downtown as everything inside the Inner Loop, as well as Corn Hill, the East End and Monroe Avenue west of Alexander.)

“People are coming for one thing and you’re dazzling them with another,” said Jon Mervine, co-founder of Fifth Frame on St. Paul Street. Fifth Frame is part micro-brewery, part coffee roaster, part maker of one of the best breakfast sandwiches in town. And yes, there is a little bit of a bowling theme thrown in there for good measure.

Meanwhile, in the East End, PopRoc is serving up coffee, too, but with a side of comic books and cereal. Think of watching Saturday morning cartoons in your jammies with a bowl of cereal while Mom and Dad’s percolator is summoning them to the kitchen. Except now you’re a millennial or older – perhaps someone who hasn’t read comics in years and isn’t ready to plunk down $4 just to have the pleasure of cracking open the latest incarnation of Batman and Spider-Man.

“Just like my church,” says PopRoc co-owner Jason Hilton, “we’re not interested in luring people from other churches.”  PopRoc is more interested in gathering new fans, or bringing old fans back to the comics they once loved.

Serendipity or some other higher power has played a role in the development of both concept restaurants. For Fifth Frame it was the specific location. Winning a business plan competition gained the company a location rent-free for a year at 155 St. Paul St., a complex known as The Hive.  But the company had been looking downtown anyway.

“In my heart, I’m downtown,” Mervine said. He enjoys the walkability and atmosphere. “There’s an energy, a vibe,” he said.

For PopRoc, the location at 337 East Ave. came about as Hilton was coming out of church just down the block. Negotiations hadn’t been going all that well for commercial spaces in College Town and on Monroe Avenue, but then Hilton said he noticed the spot that had formerly been a wings restaurant.

“I like to think God picked this place for us,” Hilton said. But it was friends and acquaintances that drove the chief menu item. “Cereal was never in our initial business plan,” he said. But when the owners mentioned it offhandedly as a possible menu item, the reaction was more than notable. So they went with it.

“Cereal is our number-one seller right now,” Hilton said. Some things, though, are going exactly according to plan.

“It’s always been in the plan to provide a safe pace for people, where families can come,” Hilton said.

Both businesses, at the eastern and northern extremes of downtown, offer a hangout spot for a different time of day and perhaps a different clientele than any of their neighbors. They both serve breakfast foods, including locally made doughnuts. Fifth Frame’s selection of breakfast sandwiches is available all day. Likewise, at tea time it’s still possible to get a bowl of Froot Loops or Cookie Crunch at PopRoc for $3, which is less than a cup of coffee at many premium cafes.

Fifth Frame and PopRoc appeal, in other words, to a crowd other than late-night drinkers (though Fifth Frame is open to midnight several days a week.) And yet, there’s some overlap there, too. Mervine noted that on the weekends, people will walk to Fifth Frame from the Genesee Brew House, a couple of blocks to the north.

PopRoc is a regular comic book store in some ways, but it also offers a different business model from other comic books stores. While other stores will try to shoo away those who are tempted to read comics before purchasing them, PopRoc offers a membership for $20 a month that allows unlimited time in the store with 20 titles a week that the store’s comics curator selects, as well as a discount on purchases.

The shop also adds several children’s titles to the monthly program and makes those available for free to younger kids. Hilton said the store maintains a toy box for little ones to play with for free so they aren’t reaching for expensive collectibles. That practice grew out of his recollections of visiting a comics store with his Dad many years and being told “don’t touch ANYTHING.”

Both businesses are experimenting with events or other offerings. All three of PopRoc’s owners have some experience in professional wrestling;  the shop will offer a monthly wrestling night including a live wrestling feed on its big screens, along with wrestling celebrities.

Mervine, meanwhile, is looking forward to St. Paul St. reconstruction being over (there was a backhoe digging up the sidewalk outside the door to Fifth Frame recently) so they can add patio seating on the sidewalk. A refreshed menu is due soon, too.

As for the hybrid model? “It’s the future,” said Mervine, adding that he expects another 10 places in downtown to be doing the same soon. “Why be just a brewery? Why be just a comic book shop? You’re paying the rent. How do you maximize that?”

Other new restaurants, clubs or coffee houses that have opened in the downtown area in the last year or two:

  • Spirit House, 139 State St., a bar that makes a play on words about a type of alcohol and some of the spiritualist history of Rochester.
  • The Vesper Kitchen & Bar, 1 Capron Street, a gastropub in the shadow of the I-490 ramps off South Avenue.
  • Starbucks Coffee, a Starbucks licensee opened in the Hyatt Hotel, 125 E. Main St.
  • Morton’s The Steakhouse brought the Chicago-based chain of upscale steakhouses to the Hyatt Regency Rochester, 125 E. Main St. The restaurant opened in October 2017
  • RocBurger on Main, a mix-and-match burger bar, is the dining attraction at the Rochester Riverside Hotel, 120 E. Main St.
  • Mac’s Philly Steaks has a location in the Corn Hill Landing Plaza, 298 Exchange Blvd., and opened another shop – its sixth location – at 50 Chestnut Street in April.
  • Steadfast, a casual but upscale sandwich eatery, opened this month at 200 East Ave. in the spot formerly housing Matthew’s East End Bar and Grill.
  • Branca Midtown, 280 East Broad St., brings high-end Italian cuisine and high-style décor to the Tower 280 building.
  • Bar Bantam features a changing menu of locavore-pleasing food in a stylish setting in the lobby of The Metropolitan building at 1 S. Clinton Ave.
  • Unter Biergarten, a Bavarian/New American brewpub, opened this year at 120 East Ave. in the space Victoire used to occupy.
  • And coming soon: Native, the latest locally-sourced restaurant from the Mueller Restaurant Group, which brought Label 7 to Schoen Place in Pittsford.

dcarter@bridgetowermedia.com/(585) 363-7275

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