Homing In

Vera's Café
2901 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis;
(612) 822-3871

Hours: Daily 7:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m.

Years ago, in a thoroughly awful restaurant, a friend of mine desperately grasped for something nice to say. "What I love about this place," she offered finally, "is that it would make such a great apartment. You could just put a bed there behind the bar, a couch here, a desk in the window, voilà!" The whole table stopped to goggle at her; it just seemed such an eccentric way of thinking. "Didn't you do that when you were little?" she asked, genuinely surprised. "Didn't you look at every room and try to figure out how to make it an apartment?" No one had.

I hadn't thought about this at all for years, until I was sitting in Vera's one evening, nursing a latté and half-listening to the Billie Holiday that was playing, and I realized that the Lyn-Lake coffee shop is like some kind of cosmopolitan Biosphere: It contains within its walls everything necessary to support grown-up, aesthetically involved life. That it took a largely gay coffee shop to bring this to town is entirely unsurprising. What is surprising is the ability of a well-timed Judy Garland CD to clear out the riffraff; no smoking tumbles of teens knocking over your table, no Gap-clad tots aiming Cheerios at your head while Mom argues on the cell phone.

But what exactly am I defining as the building blocks for cosmopolitan life? Well, there's coffee, always hot, never burnt, and starting at a civilized $1.10 a cup. And straight-backed chairs and tidy tables for working, cushy chairs for lounging (as well as an exceedingly inviting green velvet couch), coffee tables brimming with diverting reading--Australian Elle, Tatler, and other global glossies. Not to mention all the major food groups: soups, sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and lemon meringue pie.

Those soups ($2.95 a cup, with bread, $4.25 a bowl, with bread, or $3.95 for a cup, with half a sandwich,) are unpretentious, chunky, and handmade, forthrightly flavored and full of fresh vegetables: a curry lentil strong with cumin and colorful with haphazardly cut blocks of carrot; a vegetarian chili nicely tomatoey; a chicken bok choy full of meat and crisp cabbage.

Sandwiches ($4.80) are made to order and attractively simple--tuna salad, ham salad, turkey, roast beef, hot ham and Swiss, or a vegetarian cream-cheese muffuletta. They're all sweetly unambitious--standard cold cuts, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes--but what they lack in gourmet status they make up for in lunch-counter efficiency: cheap, fast, wholesome.

A half-dozen variations on scrambled eggs, made fluffy with the steamer from the cappuccino machine, are available all day. Herby eggs ($3.50) are fluffed with a blend of dried parsley, basil, and such, topped with shredded Cheddar cheese, and served beside white or wheat toast with butter and grape jelly. There's also good oatmeal all day, served with toast for $3.50. Up the ante to $4.80 and you can have your choice of many other culinary pillars of contemporary life: a big garden salad; a rice and bean burrito with chips; lasagna with garlic bread; chicken caesar salad. None of the above is a destination treat, but when you're eating alone over a book, they're some of the most comfortable meals in town. Put a piece of dense carrot cake or a slice of the aforementioned lemon meringue pie ($2.25) in the corner of the pretty antique tin tray your meal is served on and you'll feel very well cared for indeed.

Still, the food is just the tip of what makes Vera's so complete. It's more the way the coffee shop, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, fills the rest of a soul's needs. It provides Nature, in the form of the adjacent patio, an elegant little leafy park set with wrought-iron furniture. (A top-hatted, formal interaction with nature, to be sure, more Gigi than Gore-Tex.) Also Theater, courtesy of some of the more amusing patrons to be found in the Twin Cities. "I think it's an injustice that anyone has to turn 50," a fellow at the neighboring table told me one morning, mortified at having been given a muffin with a candle in it. "It sounds like a character flaw for teenagers: 'She's so 50 these days....' Why can't we get something sexy, like a drug name, with a z and an x. 'I'm turning zaxtry, I'm turning xaroz'--that has to be better." And Art, including an oil painting of a wooded winter river that's roiling so, it looks ready to curl out of the walls, and a glassed-in wooden display case of a few hundred stamps that bears close examination: Peer inside and you're rewarded with squiggly, evocative hand-drawn pictures by an artist amused by everything from the space shuttle to bunnies to cats messing with toilet bowls. And, of course, there's that Music. In addition to Judy Garland, spending time in the presence of Vera's sound system is akin to taking a course in post-World War I/pre-Vietnam popular song.

"When I started, I wanted a friendly place where there was a certain maturity level," says owner Wayne Butzer, who is responsible for every aspect of Vera's--he picks the music, he collected the furniture, and it's his grandmother's portrait that dominates one wall of the main room. "I wanted a quiet place without punk-rock music, and--well, I don't know how you say this in print without bashers showing up, but we'll see--a place where we'd have a 60 or 70 percent gay crowd (which is what we have), and a 100 percent gay-friendly crowd.

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