Munch goes to City Cafe in Lawrenceville
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Emil Lester, who runs City Cafe in Lawrenceville, is the kind of restaurant proprietor Munch likes. He's a little gruff, and you'll get an opinion (on any range of topics) on the side, along with a fruit plate. On Munch's trip, both were gratis with an entree.
Mr. Lester has written the Post-Gazette a handful of times, offering his views on everything from city politics ("There is [an] acute shortage of creative people in positions of leadership") to how to grocery-shop ("A good cook does all her [or his] own shopping, never relies on a husband or wife, especially a wife").
Munch has similarly strong opinions, albeit on different topics. Ask Munch about low-fat mayonnaise, light beer, the Baltimore Ravens, the entire state of West Virginia, Splenda and who killed Mama Cass (the ham sandwich is just a scapegoat), and you'll get an earful.
But while Mr. Lester has earned plenty of newsprint, little of it has been dedicated to what he does for a living: run a restaurant. So Munch decided to give this gadfly's grub a try.
Munch took along Vegetarian Intern Friend of Munch. After recalling that summer Munch spent as an intern subsisting on buttercream-frosted retirement cakes and office doughnuts, Munch figured she would appreciate a free meal. Also in tow was Perpetually Working Friend of Munch, who was only pried from her BlackBerry when her entree arrived.
The cafe is open and light, housed in an older building with a classic facade on Lawrenceville's Butler Street. The interior is sparse, just a handful of small, round-top tables and chairs and a bar where Mr. Lester makes coffee drinks. The decor is non-ironically quirky, and includes, among other things, a carpet portrayal of a landscape hung up on the wall near the door.
The menu is vegetarian, but unpretentiously so. You won't find any unpronounceable meat substitutes or bee pollen or wheat grass, but you will find a lot of eggs, including a fascinating selection of omelets. The joint is open a full 12 hours, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but there are just two kinds of entrees: breakfast and lunch. A sandwich board outside advertised BREAKFAST ALL DAY! (This is something to get pretty excited about.)
But there are rules, odd rules. Mr. Lester told us we weren't allowed to order both lunch and breakfast. OK, well, we could if we ordered the pasta. You're not allowed ice cream to go unless it's on a cone. And if you want an entree to go, you must eat half first, no matter how scalding hot it is.
Mr. Lester, who is the restaurant's sole employee, calls himself a "half-man operation," because "I'm not operating like I used to."
Needless to say, the service was slow, a fact that Munch didn't mind so much because the space is pleasant, and because PWFOM was late.
Munch settled on a breakfast burrito stuffed with jalapeno peppers, potatoes, cheese and eggs ($5.95). Unlike the grease-laden ones Munch has gotten back West, this one managed to feel healthy, more potato than cheese and eggs.
VIFOM got the Florentine omelet ($6.95), stuffed with cheese, spinach and mushrooms. It came out puffed up and with a crisp outside, oozing cheese, and with a "side of sinfully buttery potatoes."
It was "fluffier than any other omelet I'd ever seen," quipped VIFOM, "with a small side of sinfully buttery potatoes."
And, without asking, Mr. Lester obliged VIFOM's wheat allergy by substituting the bagel with a fruit plate.
PWFOM ordered the pasta with vegetables ($7), a heaping bowl of macaroni-like noodles stacked with sauteed zucchini, squash and stewed tomatoes and topped with rosemary. It was a sight so beautiful that PWFOM's glance was finally stolen from her BlackBerry.
"Ooohhh," she said. "This is exactly how I want my man to be."
(Munch once tried to marry a slice of pizza, so Munch can relate to the attraction to food.)
Then came the lecture. Staring at her furiously typing thumbs, Mr. Lester advised her to "get rid of those things!"
"We can communicate without devices!" he said.
And that, Munch supposes, is the point of his cafe. There might be a hefty wait for your food, but perhaps Mr. Lester hopes you'll put down your BlackBerry, enjoy the view and converse with the people right in front of you.
First Published June 16, 2011 12:00 am