Eat & Drink

Split Personality

CafeBar is a welcome addition to the West Wash Park dining scene, but does it have what it takes to be a neighborhood icon?

October 2012


CafeBar - 2 1/2 stars
295 S. Pennsylvania St.



The Draw  A casual neighborhood restaurant with an inviting patio, a small but energetic bar with kitchen-view seating, and a menu that relies heavily on seasonal, local ingredients.

The Drawback  Spotty service; many dishes suffer from carelessness.

Don’t Miss  Trout cakes, duck drumettes, pan-roasted chicken, pan-seared scallops, heirloom goat salad.

Price  $$$ (Average price per entrée: $18) 

FOOD: 2 1/2 stars

SERVICE: 2 stars

AMBIENCE: 3 stars



Neighborhood restaurants exist for evenings when you walk into your kitchen, consider the contents of the refrigerator, and walk right back out the front door. You want something close (ideally within walking distance), casual (a come-as-you-are environment is a must), and reliable (a decent burger or salad goes a long way).

But cultivating this ideal ratio of comfort and dependability is exceptionally difficult, as evidenced by the fact that one in four restaurants closes within the first year of business, and 60 percent lock the doors for good within three. Sure, a restaurant may start strong—I mean, who doesn’t like new? But if the place can’t maintain the momentum, its obituary will be written faster than you can say “dearly departed.”

It takes a concerted effort to keep the mojo going, and not every restaurant is up to the challenge. Case in point: CafeBar, which landed on our Best New Restaurants list in March. Over the last several months, the West Wash Park neighborhood restaurant has lost some of its star power. Yes, it’s still an inviting neighborhood place to hang out, with a clean, modern design, large street-facing windows, and a welcoming patio. It also possesses an accessible, modern American menu—burgers, fish, pasta, pork chops—that emphasizes seasonal, local ingredients. Where CafeBar needs to recharge is in consistency and service.

As the name suggests, CafeBar is split into two distinct spaces. On one side: a buzzy and energetic bar with a community table, countertop seating, and an open-view kitchen. This is the area to choose if you need a shot of vitality with your meal. The other side of the restaurant is quieter and larger, with more room to breathe and hear yourself talk. The cafe is grown-up, the bar more adolescent, and it’s nice having a choice between the two.

The problem is that the split personality exhibited by the space is often reflected in the dishes themselves. Chef Eric Rivera, 27, who worked for three years at Lala’s Wine Bar and Pizzeria in Capitol Hill, has built a menu with familiar favorites like ribs, rib-eye, and risotto, each simply constructed. From appetizer to entrée, each dish at CafeBar contains a long list of tantalizing veggies, such as baby spinach, candied lemon, heirloom tomatoes, or sweet corn. But although the restaurant’s script, theme, and concept are working, the overall performance is not. In fact, when I consider the list of dishes ordered over the course of several visits, fully half suffered some significant flaw.

During my first visit, the meal began on a high note with the heirloom goat salad—a balanced jumble of peppery mizuna, sweet grape tomatoes, and crunchy almonds, anchored by two spheres of delightfully crispy goat cheese fritters. Then came the lamb ribs, massaged with a sweet-hot spice mixture and served alongside a thick artist’s smear of apricot-habanero glaze. The meat? Sweet, tender. The glaze? Superb—worth pairing with any number of dishes. The criticism? The dry rub on the ribs was so oversalted, I gulped water both during the meal and for several hours afterward.