by Rick Bostick
The Dagwood sandwich at Cafe Eclectic piles fresh-roasted turkey, lettuce, tomato and pickle between three generous layers of ciabatta bread.
I'm a sucker for anything cute and fun, zany and adorable, or happy to the point of giddiness. However, when it comes to restaurants, these descriptors usually apply to establishments catering to those under the age of 10. How pleasant that one Midtown café has found a way to put amusement and enjoyment at the forefront of the experience of dining out — even for us adults! Located on a corner lot in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood since February 2008, Café Eclectic is notable for its lighthearted and playful menu as well as its laid-back, down-home atmosphere.
Owner Cathy Boulden and chef Mary O'Brien have made Café Eclectic much more than a place to get coffee. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch are served, and it seems there's never a slow day there. One recent morning, we waited for a moment or two at the entrance until a server directed us to a two-top table in the back. There was much to observe in this short walk: a bakery case filled with house-made cupcakes, muffins, and doughnuts; a soda fountain capped off by a tempting display of jewel-colored gelato; and high ceilings, burgundy walls, chalkboard signs, and a wide expanse of windows.
We began with a cup of French press Illy coffee and a kettle of Numi's Starlight Lily Rose, a blooming white tea presented in glass so that the flowering tea leaves could be admired. The coffee and tea menu at Café Eclectic is extensive enough to need its own page, and the variety — macchiatos, lattes, steamed cider, chai, and many organic teas — will satisfy those in pursuit of a serious caffeine fix.
First, we wanted to try some savory items. The French omelet was filled with plenty of white cheddar and shredded spinach, and along with it came the choice of a biscuit or toast. The biscuit, which I ordered with strawberry beurre, was the star — not at all greasy or heavy, it had a light, just-baked quality that isn't easy to find at restaurants during a morning rush, and the strawberry butter tasted bright and not overly sweet. I also tried Rachel's Breakfast Wrap, filled with grilled vegetables, tomatoes, bacon, cheese, and scrambled tofu in a tortilla.
After all the eggs, we were ready to end with something sweet. Café Eclectic is known for its emphasis on using locally sourced ingredients, and Pookie's Buckwheat Pancakes, described as "made with freshly ground buckwheat from the Mississippi Delta," even won over the confirmed pancake-hater at the table. I loved the bit of crunch around the edges, the sliced strawberry on top, and the feeling that these were healthier than the usual all-white-flour kind. Uncle Andrew's Scottish Porridge, though, was a bit sad in comparison. It sat by its little self in a small bowl since the brown sugar and butter that were supposed to be on the side had been forgotten.
Service at Café Eclectic is friendly but fairly casual, so the sort of diner who wants another drink right away or plates cleared immediately is going to notice that it's not the most pressing priority. However, any special requests or needs were noted and quickly taken care of by our server.
Now for my favorite thing: the doughnuts. Café Eclectic, with its mysterious and legendary "doughnut robot" machine, is producing the kind of modernized doughnuts — cake-like, not too sweet, sometimes seasonal, and always on the small side — that other big cities have enjoyed for awhile now. After brunch, for 50 cents each, we carried out a box of blueberry, chocolate, and plain glazed, and also pumpkin, strawberry, and cinnamon sugar. Later, we could not choose a favorite since they were all soft, with a nice, even crumb and complex flavors. The next-door bakery provides the doughnuts and prepares all the other treats and breads in-house.
The great thing is that the rest of the menu at Midtown's Café Eclectic is just as stellar as their addictive, perfect doughnut.
During a weekend dinner, I started with grilled shrimp and avocado as an appetizer, and my dining companion chose the hummus dip with crudités. The shrimp were plentiful and plump, and the hummus was chunky with an emphasis on lemon and coriander. Our salads were big enough to be served on dinner plates; we sampled the mixed greens salad with walnuts, feta, and apricots first, and it was so nicely put together and lightly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette that I soon ordered the Beet It salad for myself. It featured red onions, thinly sliced pears, bacon, and tiny chopped and roasted beets in a light citrus-honey dressing.
Just for the sheer novelty of it, I opted for the Eclectic Dog as my entrée; I chose a turkey frank with cheese and chili. Smoky and thick, the chili was a little overpowering, but overall I liked it. My dining companion chose a burger. Both entrees were accompanied by taters — rosemary-flecked white and sweet potatoes prepared in a rustic manner, crisp and caramelized on the outside, warm and creamy inside, and well-seasoned.
For dessert, the affogato, a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream with steaming espresso poured over it, was served in a sundae glass, perfect in its simplicity. The tres leches cake appeared moist without being too drenched and featured a thin coating of icing and chocolate stripes.
That night blues pianist Ross Fowler was playing (live music is offered on weekends), and in one of the most adorable surprises I have experienced in a while, in the middle of his set he told us we were about to experience Venice in Café Eclectic. Suddenly, he waltzed around to every table while serenading diners with accordion music from a breathtaking cream and glittery gold instrument. It was pleasingly odd and wonderful to behold, one of those events that make life feel like a movie for a minute.
Also making that visit a highlight were the many old-fashioned sodas available, and we tried an old favorite from childhood, Cheerwine soda. The café does not serve alcohol, but there is no corkage fee for bringing in your own bottle of wine.
Next, I wanted to see what a midday meal would have in store. The lunch and dinner menus are the same, but I decided to go the comfort food route at lunch with friends. While a cup of the roasted red pepper soup was overly salted and not complex in its flavors, my entrée, Granny's Mac and Cheese, was ideal for a cold-weather meal. I noted the creamy white cheddar base and a crispy, nicely browned panko-crumb topping. The dish was so satisfying, so steaming hot, that I was completely focused on it and the "cute little salad" of greens simply dressed in balsamic vinaigrette that accompanied it.
I went all out for dessert; the soda fountain menu is oh-so-retro, and it includes phosphates, floats, and sundaes. The Hot Mamma Sundae caught my eye; spicy chocolate in any incarnation is one of my favorite sweet things, and this particular dessert included vanilla ice cream, red hots, and a Mayan chocolate, cinnamon, and cayenne sauce. After I got used to the addition of the crunchy candy, the cold ice cream plus the heat of the sauce made for a good mix.
It's rare that a restaurant boasts such an emphasis on fun and delivers it in a sophisticated and quirky way. Because there's so much personality in the setting, service, and the menu there, because it's the kind of gathering place that makes everyone instantly more relaxed, and because it's like hanging out in the living room of someone who really knows great comfort food, I will go back often. I wish my own neighborhood had a cute place exactly like it.