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