Westender Review #253: “Finer Diner ‘Cafeteria’ Opens Strong”

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My review of Main St.’s new Cafeteria in this week’s Westender:

by Andrew Morrison | It’s not uncommon for eagerly anticipated new restaurants to fall flat on their faces. The service can be skittish, the food unevenly prepared, and the vibe altogether unsettled, but that’s only to be expected with new rooms. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, usually by paying them three separate visits. One can’t expect (though it’s entirely reasonable to demand) perfection during the first few weeks. Mistakes — even a horrendous one, or two — are the norm. One dines accordingly, as if in a minefield.

That said, on very rare occasions, a restaurant comes along that’s a genuine pleasure to review straight out of the gate. Cafeteria is one of those. Having opened two weeks ago at Main and 11th, it’s without any noticeable flaws and drunk on that most elusive of hospitality cocktails: experience, mixed with confidence, and good luck. One visit was enough, but I went twice because I liked it so much.

Cafeteria takes over the old (yet short-lived) artist-designed-and-owned Ping’s Cafe space, which, although much-loved by some for its Yankee-influenced Japanese comfort food, was misunderstood by way too many others.

Its successor, still a 30-seater, is the latest effort from chef Andrey Durbach and front-of-house veteran Chris Stewart, the same pair that gave the sumptuous Parkside (now Adesso Bistro) to the West End; the slick, vite, vite Pied-à-Terre to Cambie Village; and the molto reliable La Buca to the West Side. The pair pinpoint what a neighbourhood is missing and provide its denizens with a fair approximation of what they want (perhaps even before they know it), thanks to a playbook that’s a combination of limited ambition (nothing too fancy), bold flavours, small rooms, and accessible price points.

Cafeteria is casual, but not without style. The narrow space is deliberately basic: twin banquettes lining the walls lead to a small, wine rack-topped bar, the room’s soundtrack being the steady clang and chatty din of dining. During the dinner rush, it can get loud. The walls — one side brick, the other bright white — are mounted with old-school diner blackboards, upon which tiny white letters in Helvetica font spell out the menu of the day (there are no paper versions). The glassy zinc table tops lend some polish, but the no-reservations policy drives the intended take-it-easy point home, as do the smiling servers in black, branded T-shirts and jeans.

Sometimes French, sometimes Italian, chef Durbach flirts with both cuisines here, and ventures elsewhere, too. I spied a scallop sashimi on my first visit, and reveled in a Spanish salad of juicy tomato (so ripe and bursting that I squirted a man at the next table), Manchego, arugula, and chorizo on the next ($10.75). Durbach’s food is more about deep-seated cravings well-met than about geographic fealty. He’s perfected Caesar dressing, using it to anoint gem lettuce littered with crispy, battered anchovies ($8.50); nailed his soups, in this instance a dark and salty matzo ball consommé ($4.75); and so reanimated chicken and veal schnitzels with delicious breading that they positively luxuriate in mustard crème fraîche and gorgonzola cream, respectively (both $17.50). Exquisitely cooked fillets of petrale sole glisten with bacon-studded lemon butter and are liberally specked with small chanterelles ($17.50) — the combined tastes and textures of which caused my wife to order it twice — while massive slabs of intensely flavoured and fatty prime-rib steak come spread with broad crescents of decadent macaroni and cheese that marinate in the overflowing rib juices ($19.75).

This is seriously good food, minus all the seriousness — as if John Belushi’s character in Animal House graduated from cooking school with honours and got himself the lead on a kitchen line. Even the afterthoughts are impressive: Greek yogurt panna cotta brightened with cherries ($6) and the cold, heavily sugared “caffeine shot” coffees ($2). Every offering looks good, tastes great, and is priced to make you question how they turn a profit.

Main Street has plenty of quality pub-grub joints, sandwich-doling cafes, and more than enough beery hang-outs to sate the legions of bearded, flannel-clad, fixed-gear bicycle riders that call the neighbourhood home (if only on weekends), but there are just a handful of restaurants on the strip that can surprise, and occasionally, wow. This newcomer joins those rare ranks without surrendering to stodginess, putting on airs, or bleeding me dry.

As a consequence, the room is lively and already rather full during the dinner rush (there is no lunch service). If you arrive to a line-up, do as the natives do and put your name and cell number on the wait board. Go for a stroll up and down the block to work up an appetite. But make sure the volume on your ringer is up. Theirs is a call you don’t want to miss.

Cafeteria | 2702 Main | 778-317-3783 | no website

  • Doug Decloux

    yeah not so impressed, my dinner arrived cold. and the “lobster” pasta had mostly crab in it. I was told by the server the inside of the tortellini was “supposed to be cold” but the second time around it all arrived hot. hmmmmmmm. its close to home but based on my first time around not anxious to go back.

  • Cliff Simpson

    I was not impressed either. Everything was a heavy wintery dish that in no way sounded appetizing on a hot summer day. No vegetarian choices, and the meat they had was factory farmed bs. And the waitress tried to explain to me why cheap factory farmed meat tastes better. WTF? The food was mediocre and did not live up to the hype.

  • Jill St. Clair

    I have to agree with previous posts. Disappointingly mediocre. It was the hottest day of the year so far, a week into July, and the menu read like December. Osso bucco. Braised pork ragu. Braised beef cheek. The only fish dish was covered in a heavy cream sauce. I opted for the beef because it was “beef two ways,” and at least the other way was seared. It was cooked nice and rare, and the braised cheek was tender, if wintry and stick-to-your-ribs. But it was extremely bland. The beef was served over celeriac purée (again, like you’d want in winter) with a weird tasteless corn cake thing completely out of place on the dish. That said, we tried a nice salad and a pretty good scallop appetiser. And the beef was much better with the gorgonzola dressing as a sauce anyway. Like the above poster, I expected to find good quality, non-CAFO meat, but was told they didn’t serve anything grass fed or free range. I can excuse lots of places for this, but not chefs that ought to know better.

  • Nigel

    Fascinating people writing in responses about the lack of organic meat. You silly gits. If you want dinner for $18.00 a plate, you aren’t going to get organic or grass fed. If you want those things, goto Bishops and pay double, or stop complaining. Having worked for one of the larger organic produce distributors who focus ENTIRELY on locally sourced and farmed products, you pay through the nose for it. It simply isn’t feasible to use this product and charge so little to the patron.

    I’m excited to try this restaurant. I’ve never eaten a poor meal at either other establishments in the portfolio.

  • Ms. Megan

    i will have to admit to mourning the loss of Ping’s – - i actually loved the minimalist interiors and the handmade pottery and the food that was simple and delicious and just a little different, in a city that’s not great at different – - but still gave Cafeteria an (excited) try a week ago.

    i don’t care to fuss with great detail, but will sum up to say that i feel that Grub, not that far away, does the whole affordable-local-freshsheet concept much more gracefully and even more deliciously. (and i do think it’s ridiculous to open a restaurant with NO veg options.) the place is good, but i think that their ‘others’ (pied-a-terre, etc) are stronger.

  • Piaoliang_Sanmingzhi

    No veg options?! SOLD – I’ve gotta try this place.

    Very tired of all the dead-eyed, carb-loaded veg-heads that infest this city. More meat please!

  • 148jules

    Now closed :-( The few times I went it was excellent and a great vibe to the room. Felt like being in Soho!