On my first visit to Cafe|Bar, I spent an inordinate amount of time making plans for art projects. I'm not much of a DIY-er, but just about every decor item in the place gave me an idea for my own home.
"How do you think they made those ornaments?" I whispered to my boyfriend, pointing to the front window where blue and red orbs were dangling in a shabby-chic holiday display that someone had either made or paid hundreds of dollars for at a store like Anthropologie. While Rob, a definite DIY-er, launched into an explanation that included balloons and special glue, I moved on, pointing out the mismatched hooks on a back wall where the staff was hanging coats, the horse-head purse hooks below the bar, the subway tiles on the walls (though I mentally swapped out the dark gray for something lighter), the stools at a long community table that looked like cross-sections of tree trunks, even the adorable blue salt and pepper shakers, which, for a wild, fleeting moment, I contemplated lifting. I wanted every single item in the restaurant, from the glowing glass lights hanging from the ceiling in the bright front room to the semi-open stainless-steel kitchen in the back of the cavernous second room. Cafe|Bar looked like what my house would look like if I could afford to hire an interior designer to scour vintage shops for adorable things that shouldn't match but do. Something about the place just felt like home — only better home, because it was prettier and someone else was doing the cooking. Better cooking, too.
Rob and I had gone to Cafe|Bar for a date-night dinner, enjoying our last free moments before the crush of the holidays and family obligations. And it was fortunate that the place was cute, because that distracted us from an early flub. We'd ordered a bottle of Prosecco almost as soon as we'd sat down, then perused the menu for a few minutes before asking for buffalo cheddar meatballs and bread pudding to start our meal. The appetizers showed up before the wine — baffling, considering it takes about three seconds to pull a chilled bottle from the fridge — and then when our amiable server brought the bottle, he popped the cork and left without pouring a taste for approval, much less filling our glasses.
295 South Pennsylvania Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-close Monday through
Friday, 10 a.m.-close Saturday and Sunday
Bison burger $14
Caramelized onion-sage bread pudding $8
Buffalo n' porter cheddar meatballs $11
Rustic tomato soup (cup) $5
Lamb T-bones $24
oasted acorn squash and chestnut mac and cheese $12
Cafe|Bar is a casual restaurant, but this was too casual for me. A server should always pour a taste: That way, if the bottle is flawed, diners won't have to flag down a server to tell him of the problem, and the server will be able to replace the bottle quickly, without wasting valuable drinking time. Luckily, our Prosecco was just fine.
I'm a firm believer that sparkling pairs with just about anything, since effervescence can stand on its own, but it was an especially good match for the bread pudding, packed with sage and caramelized onion, then cut in pie-like slices, covered with a celery-root purée and sided with peppery arugula for the best Thanksgiving stuffing ever. The wine also worked with the pungent, garlic-tinged seasoning in the meatballs. Unfortunately, the buffalo itself was dry, unrevived by the drizzle of tomato demiglace on the plate and missing the promised porter cheddar, too.
Before our main courses showed up, we debated an intermezzo of charcuterie, intrigued by the list of daily selections sourced from different domestic craft producers that had been scrawled on a large chalkboard — the same trendy type employed by many restaurateurs this year. I rarely pass up cured pork, but we finally decided to skip it — and were glad we had when our hearty entrees arrived. The menu boasts that the macaroni and cheese features apple-smoked Promontory, and the kitchen was apparently very proud of the ingredient, as it had been cut into slabs and laid across the top of the orrechiette. The presentation was sloppy, but smart, since I could scoop up bites of nothing but the delicious, sharp melted cheddar with my fork. The Promontory played nicely off the subtle sweetness of the chestnut and acorn squash mixed into the sauce, too.
The macaroni was also a perfect accompaniment for the lamb T-bones. The meat was on the rare side of medium-rare — which I love, though I hadn't requested that temperature — and simply seasoned with just salt and pepper; it was lightly caramelized along the edges from its time on a hot grill. A thick, sweet blueberry marmalade had been spooned over the top, and the T-bones themselves rested on a bed of fingerling potatoes, leeks and a couple of whole, smoked tomatoes. Although I doubt every ingredient was local, taken as a whole, this heavy, gamey dish tasted like a Colorado winter.
Full and happy, we lingered over French press while eavesdropping on conversations around us. "The neighborhood has gotten so good!" a man nearby proclaimed. "I'm so glad this place opened!"
Cafe|Bar definitely fills a niche in this area north of West Washington Park — although it took some smart operators to identify the niche. When owner Dane Huguley and chef Eric Rivera, who'd manned the burners at LaLa's Wine Bar + Pizzeria for years, landed the lease for this spot off Alameda, they surveyed the neighborhood to determine what type of restaurant they should build. Noting the handful of Asian restaurants, the two breakfast/brunch joints, the Greek spot and Olav Peterson's Bittersweet, a fine-dining restaurant, all within a couple of blocks, they decided to open a cafe and bar that would dish out less expensive seasonal American fare in comfortable digs that they hoped would attract regulars. What they envisioned was a reinvented neighborhood restaurant that would become a community gathering place for people looking for good company...and good food.
So they took a fine-dining sensibility and meshed it with European cafe culture, building a smart menu based on local, fresh ingredients and variations on familiar dishes — though several surprises, such as a goose salad and chestnuts in the macaroni and cheese, sneak in, too. To that they added a concise wine list and a decent cocktail board, staffed up with servers happy to make friends of their guests, and put them all in a space ideally structured for an aperitif or a nightcap, a casual dinner with neighbors or an actual date night. And as I found out when I returned for lunch, Cafe|Bar works just fine then, too.
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SHOW ME HOW
I dropped by on a slow weekday, walking through the door just as a couple of other parties were getting ready to pay their checks. Another friendly staffer escorted me to the back room, where sounds coming from the open kitchen punctuated a soundtrack of guys with guitars and thoughtful lyrics. After looking over the menu again, I ordered the bison burger with a cup of tomato bisque.
The soup came out first, and while the thick, tangy, chunky tomato stew enlivened with a little basil-infused pistachio oil was pretty awesome, I'd hardly call it a bisque — it wasn't at all creamy. Still, I'd happily order it again, preferably on the side of a grilled cheese sandwich with whiskey cheddar. But that would mean I wouldn't get a burger, and I'm not sure I'll ever have the willpower to skip ordering a burger at Cafe|Bar. Because it's so lean, bison can be tough meat to work with — particularly when it's flattened into a hamburger patty and grilled until what little fat it contains escapes into the ether. Rivera's kitchen had botched the bison in the meatballs, but it handled this burger right, searing it a perfect medium-rare and then topping it with espresso-encrusted cheddar, a pile of caramelized onions, and thick strips of molasses-smoked bacon and sweet roasted red peppers, then shoving everything between two halves of a soft, toasted brioche bun. The result was slightly twisted, comfortingly familiar and deeply satisfying.
Much like Cafe|Bar itself. Welcome to the neighborhood.