Tuesday, January 22, 2008
901 Carter Street
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Open 24 hours, 7 days
Accepts cash and credit card
Date of Visit: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:30 p.m.
IMPRESSIONS: Beth and I took a weekend vacation to Chattanooga, Tennessee recently. Chattanooga is a fine town - reminds me of my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but with mountains. Anyway, we hopped a Skybus flight from Columbus on a Friday night. The plane was an hour late, so we arrived at our hotel (the excellent Read House Sheraton) starving. The friendly guy behind the counter recommended this place across the street from the hotel, saying it was "Always a good place to go after a night out with your friends." Uh oh.
We went anyway, and didn't necessarily regret it. That weekend there was a cheer team convention happening in town, so the hotel and nearly every restaurant was swamped with under-dressed, over-made-up adolescent cheerleaders and their rather intense parents. We narrowly beat a group of 14 waiting to be seated at City Cafe.
And about the name: is it redundant? The City Cafe Diner. We joked that it should be called the City Cafe Diner Drive-In Greasy Spoon Dive Restaurant.
ATMOSPHERE: City Cafe Diner Drive-In, et al. is NOT the place for a quiet conversation. The night we went, the diner was packed, bright, and noisy. There are bright lights, neon signs, and mirrors all over. Tables are full of families with kids, or as the night gets later, groups of high school and college students looking for a 1 a.m. hangout. A flashy jukebox pumps out hip-hop music (and of course all the cheerleaders start dancing to it). Autographed pictures of obscure celebrities hang in one corner. In the back, the kitchen hisses and sizzles with action, while servers and busboys sometimes literally run around with plates and drinks. I asked the woman at the counter if the weekend was particularly crazy for them, and she casually replied, "No, we actually expected it to be busier."
The whole process of putting your name in and waiting to get seated is a little confusing. The main entrance to the diner drops you at the counter, where no one tells you to put your name in. Once you do, you're supposed to go wait in the lobby of the Days Inn to which the diner is attached. You access this through an unmarked door that nobody points out and that's in the back, out of sight. The "waiting room" is just the under-sized lobby of the hotel, with about four chairs total. We waited for about 10 minutes before I went and asked where we were in the line-up. You see, when the server comes to seat you, they don't call your name. They just poke their head through the unmarked door and say, "2" or "14," as in, the size of your party. No names. And the actual waiting area is down a short hallway, so no one can hear them. Once I asked when it was our turn, they seated us immediately in a booth in the middle of the restaurant. It was crazy to the point of ridiculous - half the line of people waiting to pay was standing next to our table, basically watching us eat. Fortunately, we were hungry and amused enough that we just laughed.
FOOD: City Cafe Diner serves decent diner food that's just a step or two above average. It's all quite tasty, as diner food usually is, and not particularly healthy. I read another review that said their food was just expensive Denny's food. While it may be $1 or so more than Denny's, I don't think it's that bad. It wasn't a total grease-bomb like Denny's fare tends to be.
Beth ordered the French Dip with fries, which turned out to be pretty good. I went with a breakfast option (served all day!). Since I was in the South (or, at least, further south than Ohio), I decided to try something we don't see all the time up in Columbus. So I tried the Country-Fried Steak with Gravy for the first time in my life. For those who don't know what that is, it's a slim steak that's breaded and fried, much like fried chicken. And, indeed, that's pretty much what it tasted like. The steak is so thin that they can't even ask you how you want it done. The meal was certainly flavorful: how can a fried steak with gravy taste bad? It was peppery and salty, and I was hungry, so it went down easily.
It came with two eggs (over-easy, my new favorite preparation), wheat toast, and potatoes. When I chose the potatoes over the grits, the woman gave me a strange look, and Beth said I had probably just identified myself as a Northerner. The eggs and toast were just fine - the toast was lightly buttered and soft without being floppy, and the eggs were done just right. The potatoes were disappointing. I took a few bites and then left them. They were cooked with onions and peppers (another Southern thing, I think), but they were pretty much flavorless. Even dumping some table salt on them didn't help. They should have been cooked longer until they browned a bit.
One final note about City Cafe's food: their menu boasts that they serve "over 360 items," which means that there's something to please everyone: breakfast selections, Greek food, Italian fare, Southern specialties, and ALL the diner standards like burgers, reubens, etc. But that also means, in my experience, that the specialties are generic. I mean, are the guys in the back really cooking a fresh breakfast AND preparing a fresh piece of Moussaka, all the while baking cakes and boiling some fresh Italian pasta? I'm willing to bet that there's a fair amount of microwaving and/or heating up of frozen items involved.
Okay, I lied. I have two more notes about the food. When you enter the restaurant, you are greeted with two HUGE display cases of delicious, delicious looking cakes. The guy from our hotel said City Cafe is known for their cakes, and they get points just for presentation. Your mouth will begin watering immediately at the wide selection. While we didn't get cake our first night in town, we picked up two slices the following evening. I tried the Canoli Cake, while Beth sampled the Red Velvet cake. The slices were massive, at least six inches tall, and unbelievably thick (and cheap: $4.50 each). We ate on those pieces for the next two days, and yes, they were very, very good. So City Cafe has cake going for it.
SERVICE: Our server was nice, although clearly in a hurry and not in the mood to chat. Same with the woman behind the counter, who was pounding down her own meal in between customers (she told me she had ordered food 2 hours prior, and the kitchen was so busy they had just gotten it to her then). If you come here, expect to get a little bit of friendly attitude along with your meal. But they'll take care of you.
They also have a 24-hour delivery service. The night we arrived in Chattanooga, we saw two (2!) guys dedicated to delivery, and they were heading out the door with armloads of food.
OVERALL: City Cafe Diner is a fun stop that serves the basic purpose of entertaining you and filling you up with decent food. It's a local joint that seems to be favored by locals and tourists alike in Chattanooga, so to me it's automatically a step up from a greasy breakfast chain like Perkin's or Denny's. While it's not the top eats in Chattanooga (nor the top breakfast, as you shall soon see), you could end up in worse places, especially if you're hungry for something that will taste good and fill you up, in a place that can seat a sizeable group and offer a taste of everything. Plus, there's that cake. I could go back just for that.
-> Reviews on Dine.com
-> Reviews on Yahoo! Local
-> List from The Chattanooga Pulse
Sunday, January 13, 2008
4241 North High St.
Columbus, OH 43214
Open 9:00 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday
Accepts cash and credit cards
Date of Visit: Maaaaaaaaaany times, but for this review, Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 1 p.m.
IMPRESSIONS: [Spoiler alert!] I love Northstar Cafe.
It's time. It's time for me to finally review one of the places that has solidified my absolute love for breakfast. This will be incredibly easy. And yet, rather hard. What do I say? How do I review one of my ideals for breakfast? I don't want to just heap glowing praise... but, I'm not going to make up complaints. (I had a similar problem with my Real Food Cafe review.)
Northstar Cafe is a local breakfast/lunch/dinner/coffee/dessert/ snack joint that focuses on using fresh, local, well-treated foods. They try to be socially conscious of the way they treat food and use resources. While I'll focus on the breakfast here, Northstar's lunch and dinner offerings are also excellent. Their Flatbreads are delicious, the Buddha bowls transcendent, and the Northstar Burger is not only the best veggie burger I've ever had, it's probably the best burger I've ever had. You won't believe it until you try it.
Northstar started down in the Short North Arts District, although the restaurant on which this review is focused is the second store, in the Clintonville/Beechwold neighborhood. Our friends Jack and Christina introduced us to the original Northstar a couple years ago. They had raved and raved about it, and on our first visit, Beth and I were certainly impressed, but not overwhelmed. However, we went back another time for breakfast, and then things clicked. Northstar became one of our favorites. It was dangerous that we lived so close, and that we could take Maeby and sit out on the patio on nice days.
Walking into the restaurant for this review, I was already sold. I almost didn't know what to write down. It's good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just a coffee with friends. Whenever we need someplace for a quick bite to eat, or want to impress out-of-town visitors, Northstar is always at the top of our list. Now, on to the review...
ATMOSPHERE: Northstar's atmosphere is the perfect (oh, gosh, I said perfect already) blend of busy/casual. There's always a flurry of activity, but customers are never rushed like a fast food joint. As you're waiting in line, I encourage you to just stand and watch the kitchen. You get a good view of the hustle and bustle - another case of restaurant's being honest and letting you see what they're doing. I always find that reassuring. It's amazing how many people are back there working for a place that's no bigger than your average restaurant. You'll see people chopping and prepping food, folks shoving flatbread in and out of wood-fired ovens, cooks hovering over grills, and servers moving deftly in and out of the kitchen to deliver the delectable fare (or is it fair?).
Northstar always has great music playing. A server once told us that the music is selected by the employees. Everyone gets a chance, he said, to bring in a mix CD of appropriate tunes for the place. How cool is that? How many jobs let you listen to your own music... publicly?
The layout of the restaurant lends itself to every type and speed of customer, although on busy days expect to feel a little rushed. There are booths for 2-6 lining the walls. Long tables in the middle of the space - great for large groups, although it there's just 2 of you, you may end up sharing one of those with other customers. Small tables for studiers. Tall tables with stools, so you can sit and gaze out the window. A small "lounge" with a couch and some plush chairs, facing a huge rack of magazines: you're allowed to grab one and read while you eat. There's also a brick patio out front with covered seating.
FOOD: Northstar Cafe shines with its food. The menu features a small number of specialties. The breakfast menu has about six regular items, as well as delicious muffins and scones. And the cookies...? Oh my goodness, try the chocolate cookie. We think it's laced with crack.
One cool thing about the baked goods: they're put out front on the counter and labeled with time they were baked that morning. Always. So you can know specifically how many HOURS old your pastry is. That's the way things should be.
A note about drinks: if you order a soda, wine, or beer, they'll give it to you up front. They also have incredible fruit smoothies and fresh-squeezed orange juice (oh, so thick). Those you order at the counter, and then they make it, call it out, and have you retrieve it yourself. If you order the hot tea, they'll bring it to you. The coffee, water, and seasonal iced tea (a red currant in winter, a green tea in summer) is self-served. Coffee is always top-notch. Typically four blends are available: decaf, light-, medium-, or dark-roast.
The first couple food items up for review are not strictly breakfast items, but Beth ordered them while I got breakfast (we went during the Sunday brunch hour), and I think it's worth mentioning them, if only to show Northstar's flexibility. The first item is a new soup, which we hope becomes a menu regular (and we've heard they might!).
It's a hearty tomato soup with Tuscan bread and an olive tapenade, and boy was it perfect for a cold winter's day. The tomatoes were fresh and chunky. The bitter oily flavors of the olives balanced out the chunky, fruity tomato in fine style. Beth said it was one of the best tomato soups she's ever had.
The soup came with Northstar's side salad, which is a crisp blend of mixed greens. It's fresh as all get-out (which is very fresh, as you know). It's lightly coated with a peppery vinaigrette dressing, and makes a fine complement to the soup.
So that's some of their lunch offerings, but now for the big show: the breakfast. And breakfast at Northstar features the piece de resistance... The Big Burrito.
There's a scene in the Pixar film Ratatouille where the main character, Remy, a rat with exquisite culinary senses, explains how he came to love food and cooking. He describes the notes he gets when he tastes a piece of fruit, and the filmmakers realize his impressions with swirling colors and light jazz music. He then tastes a piece of cheese, and another colorful display blossoms on the screen. Remy then tastes both at once, and suddenly he's got a full orchestra playing to a cornucopia of lights and colors. This is how Remy shows us what happens with different food combinations.
And this is how the Northstar Big Burrito is for me. On their own, each of the ingredients is great, but just a single note: thick-sliced, seasoned bacon (you can add this or sausage, and I always add the bacon), a fried egg, white cheddar cheese, soft but not mushy sweet potatoes, black beans, crisp red peppers and onions, the soft burrito shell with authentic grill lines (oh, the grill taste), and a sweet, chilled salsa served on the side. Each of these is good in its own way, but blended together: remarkable.
If I had to choose one breakfast item to eat for the rest of my life, it would be the Northstar Cafe Big Burrito (with bacon). I've never met a more exquisite breakfast item. Whenever I go someplace else for breakfast, and I see a breakfast burrito on their menu, I scoff. I could never order another breakfast burrito (and really, most of them are sketch), because I've been spoiled by the best.
SERVICE: Northstar's service is always good, and they have a policy of never taking tips. From what I've read/heard/observed, everyone does just about everything at Northstar, so the employees are fully invested in the restaurant's operation. And they are paid accordingly. When you enter the door, you grab yourself a menu and wait in line to place your order. The friendly folks at the counter give you a number, you find a table, and they bring you the food. Once or twice, Beth and I have bemoaned the long lines (a necessary evil for any good restaurant!), but we've noticed that the lines are calculated to keep people from standing around for too long. You see, once you place your order, you are left on your own to find a table. (So if you're coming with a large group, prepare to split up.) If the counter folks just blazed through the orders, you might get a crowd of people with coffee or juice in hand with no table. Uncomfortable all around: I don't like people staring at me while I eat. But the counters seem timed to let folks through at the same rate people are eating and leaving, so they can always find a table.
Service is usually fast, even when it's busy. Once or twice, our food has taken a little too long to come out, and on those rare occasions, we've been given coupons for free meals. So kudos to the Northstar folks for being aware of the situation, and for trying to taking care of their customers.
OVERALL: Northstar has very quickly - and rightfully - established themselves as a Columbus favorite. It seemed like they had barely opened their first store when the second was announced. Both restaurants are always busy, but never overwhelmingly so. We've never walked away because it looked busy.
So, in case you couldn't tell from the review, I love Northstar Cafe. If you haven't been, go there. Now. Enjoy the food. Encourage them for their business practices. Support a local gem.
One final note: I owe special thanks to Northstar owner Darren Malhame for permission to take pictures. Thanks, Darren! And congrats!
-> Reviews at Yelp.com
-> Article from CMH Gourmand
-> Article from Restaurant Widow
Saturday, January 12, 2008
2419 Eastern Ave. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49507
Accepts cash only
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Date of Visit: Many times, but for this review December 26, 2007 at 10:00 a.m.
IMPRESSIONS: Okay, I need to lay a couple biases out on the table. Real Food Cafe is one of my ideals. My pillars. My standards. My measuring stick. You get it. Real Food Cafe has been open in Grand Rapids for a few years now, and Beth and I have frequented more times than we can count. It's a standard stop during any visit home to the fam; my parents are regulars there, to the point that they say hi to the owner, and they know the names of the servers. So coming here to actually review the place means I have to put my biases up front. I love the place. It's fantastic. To me, it's practically the epitome of a breakfast restaurant: small, familiar, local, and high quality.
Real Food is located in an old Baskin Robbins store in the Alger Heights neighborhood of Grand Rapids. I grew up less than a mile away, and I still remember the smell of that ice cream store. After BR pulled out, it went through several manifestations, until Real Food came along and made it a legend. Look at that picture above... that's how breakfast places should be. Charmingly crammed, with the breakfast preparers and breakfast eaters in close proximity. When it comes to restaurants (but breakfast places in particular), I find it reassuring that the owners would let you sit there and watch them cook. It's honest. It's like they're saying, "There's nothing to worry about here. I'm making your food right now, and not pulling a plate of manufactured what-have-you from the freezer, warming it up, and calling it a meal." And Real Food (as the name implies) is one of those honest places.
The picture above gives you a sense of the color and atmosphere of the place. It's lovely and noisy. One thing you can't see, however, is the standard crowd of people near the door or out front waiting to eat. But no one ever seems to mind waiting. (On a side note, all of these pictures were taken on my wife's iPhone. Don't they rock? Go Steve Jobs!)
Here's another fun picture. Every Christmas, Brian (a former chef from Real Food) builds a gingerbread house that they put in the shop. It's been written up a bunch in the local papers, and its attention to detail makes it worth checking out.
ATMOSPHERE: I've already gone to some lengths describing the atmosphere here, so I won't say too much more. A few descriptors: noisy, lots of clanking and sizzling, plenty of families with kids, buzzing conversation, bright and colorful dishware, warm coffee, enticing breakfast smells. A long counter full of people. Servers slipping deftly through the crowd with stacks of food. Really, the only thing I don't like about the place are the chairs - I always feel like I'm slipping out of them. However, knowing the limited room of the restaurant, it makes sense that every seat isn't a plush armchair.
FOOD: Here's where the store lives up to its name. The food at Real Food is just that: freshly prepared, in huge portions. This is great comfort food without being super greasy or messy. The breakfast menu features some good combos of the meat-eggs-potatoes variety. They also have a range of omelets: from simple cheese omelets to the Farmer's Omelet to vegetarian offerings and the Monster Omelet (lots of meat). There's great pancakes and French toast. Beth likes the Veggie Benedict. There's something for everyone. Real Food also has a lunch menu, but I've never been there in the p.m.
Let's get to some pictures! This particular day I tried the Eggs Benedict for the first time. Beth has got me into Benedicts more as of late. Real Food's is a fine example: two lovingly poached eggs, with a sweet/spicy hollandaise sauce. The sauce is just right: not watery, but not goopy. I've had hollandaise sauces that are sludgy, with the oil separating out of the mixture. Gross. But here: not.
Also, I have to say that Real Food's potatoes are some of my favorites. Big, thick chunks that are cooked through. I love it when some edges get dark and crispy. They strike a nice balance: crunchy, but not dry. You just know that someone in back chopped these up that morning.
This is Beth's favorite: the Veggie Benedict. They take the normal Benedict and replace the meat with tomatoes, mushrooms, and spinach. They'll also gladly put the hollandaise on the side, by request.
My brother Greg's favorite at Real Food: Strawberry Pancakes. Why didn't he order French toast? You should ask him.
My mother goes for the Veggie Benedict as well. Look at how bright those greens are! With the fruit on the side, it's a nice, healthy and filling choice.
Sister-in-law Katelyn opted for the breakfast bagel with eggs and ham.
And Dad went with the special of the day: a breakfast quesadilla. Just look at all these pictures! We passed around Beth's iPhone, so we could document the colorful foodiness.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
SERVICE: The folks at Real Food are top notch, too. Always friendly, constantly refilling your coffee, always personable. They recognize the regulars and acknowledge their visit. In the picture below, the guy on the right is Frank, one of the co-owners, while the woman on the left is Barb, the manager and friend of the owners. Frank co-owns of the place with his wife Renee (who works mostly at the newer store nowadays). He gave me permission to take the picture, but was too busy to hold still for it. Can't blame him!
Here's another shot of Barb doing what she does best. Look at how busy they are!
OVERALL: So there you have it! Let me say two things in summary. First, Real Food Cafe doesn't have a website, because they don't need one. They don't need to employ anything else to bring in customers, because the food and service does it for them. And second, Frank and Renee opened a second place a year or two ago, on 5430 Northland Drive in the northeast end of Grand Rapids, out towards Rockford. Is it any surprise that they've expanded already? I think that that says it all. Just to end, here's a picture of Real Food Cafe the day I wrote this review. Looks quaint with the snow, doesn't it? You know it does.
-> Reviews on MrBreakfast.com
-> Reviews on CitySearch
-> Reviews on Yahoo! Local
Thursday, January 10, 2008
680 North Pearl Street
Columbus, OH 43215
Open Mon-Thurs, 7 am - 5 pm; Fri & Sat, 7 am - 9 pm; Sun, 8 am - 4 pm
Accepts cash and credit cards
Date of Visit: Tuesday, December 11, 2007 at 10 a.m.
IMPRESSIONS: Tasi is a new addition to Columbus' Short North Arts District, and a much needed one. Aside from Michael's Goody Boy Drive-In (see previous post), there's a dearth of breakfast places in Short North. The restaurant opened in November, and is the latest project by Kent Rigsby, who owns one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood (named, go figure, Rigsby's). Tasi is named after his wife. The restaurant has taken the space in a brick-lined back alley east of High Street formerly occupied by Pistachio bakery (which moved to German Village and took the name Pistachia Vera). The side-street location adds a thrill to the visit, like you're finding a hidden treasure. And Tasi may just become that. They serve breakfast all day (woohoo!) and lunch, and already it's been raising some eyebrows with its excellence.
ATMOSPHERE: Tasi reminded me of another Columbus gem, Northstar Cafe. The space features open cement floors, exposed ceilings, and a comfortable, homey feel. Seating is sparse, and includes a handful of small tables and two large wooden ones. Apparently Tasi thrives on a brisk take-out business as much as it relies on in-store customers. When you walk in, it's a little intimidating to be faced with the long menu written across the boards above the counter. Seriously, I was a little confused, because there are sections for breakfast, sides, lunch items, entrees, and drinks. Where do I look? What do I do? But rest assured, the menu is available on a printed sheet as well. This makes things much easier. Again, like Northstar, you order at the counter, they give you a card (not with a number, but with a breed of dog: Labrador, Boxer, Weimaraner, etc.), and you find a table. Beth and I went on a slow December Tuesday, just before we hit the road for a day of Christmas shopping, and we found a table easily.
FOOD: Tasi is not the place for your simple meat-and-eggs breakfast. The menu features items such as the Greek Breakfast Sandwich, Sourdough Pancakes, Poached Eggs w/Black Bean Cake, and other specialties. The breakfast items are $1-2 more expensive than the standard diner, but the portions are perfectly filling and artfully prepared. Look at the first picture above. My wife Beth (who had been to Tasi once before) insisted we get one of these croissants. We chose the Classic Croissant, although they have almond, chocolate, and cinnamon varieties as well. The apple butter and the regular butter appear to be homemade, and they spread over this silky smooth croissant like, well... oh, heck, let's go with it... like butter.
Beth and I did the cute couple thing and split our meals, so each of us could have a taste. I ordered the Biscuits and Sausage Gravy (as seen above). I must say... this meal completely redefined sausage, biscuits, and gravy for me. The meat was nice and lean (was it turkey sausage?), the biscuits were puffy but not crumbly, and the gravy flavorful and light. The portion size was perfect.
Beth ordered the Cinnamon Challah French Toast with Warm Bananas and Frangelica Syrup. Like the sausage and biscuits gravy, this redefined French toast. Your fork cuts through both the softened bananas and the slightly doughy bread like... well, again, butter. Wow.
Here's another shot of the French toast, with Beth's tall glass of fresh orange juice in the background. Not the best picture, but we just had to show off the entire meal. I had a cup of coffee; Tasi brews Illy coffee, which Beth said is a popular Italian roaster. Fortunately for us, both meals were amazing, so we had no problem trading up halfway through. The sweet (but not too sweet) French toast served as a lovely balance to the savory sausage and biscuits. And points to the Tasi folks for presentation, too. This was perhaps one of the best-looking breakfasts I've had the pleasure of devouring in seconds.
SERVICE: Because you order at the counter, you don't get the usual give-and-take relationship you typically have with a server. However, the folks we encountered at Tasi were perfectly friendly and helpful. After you're seated, they bring the food out to you, check how everything's going, and they bus your table. Nice folks.
OVERALL: Tasi Cafe, I think, is able to master breakfast from a couple different angles. It's not straight-up comfort food (i.e. this is not the place for a plain ole plate of scrambled eggs and bacon), but they take these items and give them a classy twist. In other words, they get some of the comfort food angle, and some of the high-class, freshly prepared with artisan bread angle. I've been heaping superlatives on their food, and while I don't think Tasi is the absolute best I've ever had, it's up there. If you prefer a huge plate of meat, eggs, and potatoes for $5 (which I do, most days), Tasi is not necessarily your place. Although it's still worth a try. If I lived within walking distance, I'd probably be over there regularly, especially if their take-away business increases (their website promises a home delivery service is coming soon). Overall, Tasi is cozy (great way to start a cold December morning), with delicious, masterfully-prepared food. Like Northstar Cafe, I'm sure this place will be crawling with regulars everyday, if it isn't already.
-> Read the Columbus Alive review
-> Or the WOSU review