Uptown Cafeteria is tray chic, but can it keep up the pace?
One hot summer night, on the sidewalk in front of Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group, a girl in a short skirt kissed a guy sitting on a crotch rocket, backlit by the rowdy glow of Stella's and Cowboy Slim's. The scene was pretty romantic, actually, until the guy paused, mid-amour, reached into his pocket, and answered his cell phone. Would the girl wait? Storm off? Slap him? It was The Real World: Uptown and nobody wanted to miss an episode.
Before the first martini glass or appetizer plate hits the table, the Parasole-owned eatery in the northeast corner of Calhoun Square is, first and foremost, the neighborhood's new commons. Spend a few hours there and you'll be just as apt to bump into an old high school friend as your dental hygienist or your mayor. Most of the time, this is among Cafeteria's greatest attributes. Until you find yourself face-to-face with the cyclist you hit with your Subaru, or the guy who dumped you last week for the receptionist at his tanning salon.
Don't take Cafeteria's name too literally. There are no serve-yourself queues, no pizza rectangles pooled with ruby-hued grease to sop up with paper napkins. (Though the molded plastic serving trays do make an appearance, as do a few hair-netted "lunch ladies.") Cafeteria is, instead, a full-service restaurant with a first-floor dining room and a rooftop Skybar whose name only suggests its resemblance to a school or workplace social hub. The Support Group aspect is equally metaphorical. When I made specific inquiries, the waitress offered to lend a listening ear, but her tone suggested that my problems would take a backseat to delivering a round of drinks or two. If you need something beyond a friendly face proffering food and beverage, you're better off with AA or CaringBridge.
After welcoming my group, our waitress suggested that we use our beer coasters to get her attention, should we need anything. "Just throw one of those little things at me," she announced with a laugh. She looked like she belonged behind the counter of a surf shop, between the pair of white sunglasses perched at the base of her blonde ponytail and her deeply tanned skin. Her assistance in guiding a decision was so vague—"Yeah, I've tried that, and I liked it"—that it could have just as easily applied to the choice between a classic longboard and a tri-fin as mac-and-cheese or meatloaf. "Is it on purpose that the whole staff seems to be high-school age?" one of my friends inquired.
Cafeteria's first floor is decorated retro-mod. Some elements feel slick—the plush blue-and-orange booths, the hip magazine rack near the bar—while others, like the rust-hued carpet on the wall, look as though they might have been ripped out of an old rambler's basement. A few elements suggest an institutional setting: glazed, white brick walls like those that line windowless corridors; coarse, towel-like napkins suited to mopping nursing home peas off whiskered chins; perforated ceiling tiles of the sort that junior high students used to hurl pencils toward, to see if they'd stick.
Cafeteria's practice of running the air conditioning in a room with its windows wide open makes for a lovely habitat: Patrons can feel as if they're enjoying the weather, without pitting out a body-hugging shirt. The climate is eminently comfortable, but surely the "bed-wetting hippies" that Parasole CEO Phil Roberts famously fingered for their opposition to the company's cheeky—some say racist—billboards, will soon protest.
As for the food and beverage offerings, the restaurant's concept is somewhat contemptuous of concept, inspiring a collection of American comfort foods and a few "mainstreamed" ethnic items. Chef Jeff Anderson, who previously ran the kitchen at Salut St. Paul, says he was "stoked" by the opportunity to lead the Cafeteria team and has dozens and dozens of recipes he plans to swap into the menu every few months.
Maybe it was because my visits to Cafeteria coincided with a period of sweltering weather I heard described as being "like swimming through the ass-sweat of God," but I often felt overwhelmed by the menu's ratio of heavy, fatty items to lighter ones. The restaurant's website defines its menu's theme as "deliciousness," but it's deliciousness of a very specific sort: "as in 'I haven't eaten all day' delicious; stoner delicious; last-meal delicious,'" it reads. (If you're surprised not to see pizza, Cafeteria doesn't offer it so as not to infringe on the turf of Parasole's neighboring Il Gatto.) This hearty-food focus might appeal in the winter, but Cafeteria, with half its real estate seasonal in nature, is more of a warm-weather place. If I wished for more dishes like the Big Hippie Salad, with its colorful array of sliced veggies, its sprinkle of quinoa and hemp seed vinaigrette, does that make me a bed-wetter?
The foremost reason to visit Cafeteria is its beautiful Skybar, which is now arguably the nicest roof deck in Uptown. It has more wood than a sauna, lots of curvy, pod-shaped lounge furniture, and a gorgeous view of the city. The deck's capacity is capped at 200, so during peak demand you could wait nearly an hour to get up there.
If you are granted passage via the glass elevator, you'll encounter nicely dressed people sipping colorful cocktails, fresh-squeezed juices, and smoothies spiked with booze or protein powder (a nod to the L.A. Fitness located between levels). The mixed drinks have silly names and most are frilly by nature, even the coarse-sounding F-Bomb, which is a sweet mix of black cherry and elderflower. If you want something more nuanced, try the Orange Shag Carpet of citrus vodka, basil, and blood orange. And if you're hoping to avoid a scene, should you happen to bump into your ex and his new gal pal, stick with the half-price, half-the-booze, $5 martinis. The Bo Derek tastes like the beach with its pineapple juice and coconut rum, and it's garnished with an edible orchid.
Sop up the alcohol with an appetizer or a sandwich, and there are several good ones, starting with the Crab Rangoon. Bites of the Hot Italian Beef sandwich that contain only meat and bun are too dry, but those with melted provolone and Italian-style pickled vegetables are quite satisfying.
And then there is the matter of the $13 hot dog. What might possibly justify such an expense? Well, for starters, it's a sight to behold: a foot-long beast, splayed down the middle like a field-dressed animal, and smothered in melted cheddar. It seems even more pretentious to critique a Kobe beef hot dog than to serve it, but here goes: The meat's pedigree, in this use, at least, probably resembles a designer purse whose brand name inflates the price more than the increase in quality. But still, the dog is delicious. It has a more tender texture than a garden-variety frank, and its crispy crust is as delectable as roast chicken skin.
The restaurant's nightly specials are very 1950s: chicken potpie, Hungarian beef goulash, Friday night fish fry, prime rib. There's also kitschy Asian fare from the era, including a riff on the now-shuttered Nankin's Chicken Subgum Chow Mein. Bottles of Mrs. Butterworth's and sriracha placed on the tables seem to sum up the restaurant's mix of down-home nostalgia and hip worldliness. Most Cafeteria diners don't share any history with the blue-collar fare of truck stops and supper clubs, and they eat it with the same irony as one wears a mechanic's shirt with somebody else's name on the pocket.
Most of these dishes do the job, without exceeding expectations. The cheddar drop biscuits are good, if a little dry, but too cheesy and peppery to pair appropriately with honey butter. The walleye-and-sweet-corn fritters fry up just fine. And the turkey dinner—it comes with salty gravy, those classic, crimson spiced apple rings, and mashed potatoes just lumpy enough to suggest homemade—is what it is: a meal we never expected would amount to much. The made-to-order fried chicken, served with either mashed potatoes or waffles, is better. In my experience, the bird came out a little dark—the oil could have probably used a change—but the meat was tender, the crust was crisp, and it had a robust buttermilk flavor.
The kitchen misses no detail of its reminiscence, right down to the sides of cottage cheese served with canned peaches. But the difficulty with serving classics is that diners always have a basis for comparison, and memory can often be rosier than reality. Even the Sloppy Joes seasoned with the standard Manwich sauce—literally, straight from the can—might not meet diner expectations, especially if the ground beef seems mushy, the sauce not tangy enough, and the temperature lukewarm. I wished I were eating my mom's.
But I'd take the Monday night special, that Nankin Chow Mein, over the Minnesota-made Chun King that I grew up on—bland gray gravy, soft vegetables, and indistinct bits of mystery meat that came out of a bifurcated can. Cafeteria's arrives on a dome-topped stainless steel stand, its sweet-salty gravy smothering mushrooms, water chestnuts, peppers, cashew nuts, noodles, and chunks of identifiable chicken. I liked it, even as I wondered if its excessive saltiness was ironic. The curry has an even cuter presentation, arriving packed in a stacked-stainless-steel Asian lunchbox called a tiffen, but the flavors don't match up to those of Indian kitchens.
Several other dishes have fun built into their delivery. The night I tried it, the daily changing employee meal of soba noodles with salmon and mushrooms was fine, but not as memorable as the experience of heading into the kitchen with a cafeteria tray to pick it up off the line. Desserts are stationed in a rotating glass case of the sort indigenous to small-town diners where the waitress calls you hon. Watching it is like looking through old photo albums: an act one never tires of. My favorite was the chocolate layer cake, which is perfectly dense and moist, with a thick, not-too-sweet frosting. After a few revelatory bites, I practically needed to be wheeled out the door. Had it been my birthday, I would have been forced to turn down the restaurant's gift of cotton candy, even if the stuff is mostly air.
If anyone can get away with being over the top—the audacity of a $13 hot dog, the grossness of a photographic close-up of a lunch lady's locks tucked into a hairnet—it is Parasole. Now that Cafeteria has joined Il Gatto and Chino Latino at Lake and Hennepin, they've essentially cornered the market. As one restaurant insider put it to me, these guys "own" Uptown. "They are a bunch of old farts, but they are good with their marketing. If there is one thing they know how to do, it's sell food to kids."
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