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

This rapid descent was followed by a quick uptick—four plump, beautifully caramelized scallops positioned at north, east, south, and west around a spinach and chickpea salad topped with al dente asparagus. The clean, elegant dish was united by a bright, tangerine-infused olive oil. Then the much-lauded bison burger arrived and the experience lurched downward once again. Ordered medium rare, the burger was delivered medium well. The meat was dry. The bun was dry. Even the addition of molasses-glazed bacon and melted Barely Buzzed cheese (infused with espresso and lavender) was not enough to repair the damage.

This up-down, on-off cycle repeated itself with each visit. The duck drumettes, coated with a just-sweet-enough barbecue sauce, were sticky in a good way, crunchy, and supremely juicy. But the Bloody Mary ceviche was served with limp, inedible rock shrimp and too-thick, too-dry potato chips. The succulent pan-roasted chicken breast impressed me with its meaty flavor and herby pistachio-basil pesto. But the risotto was a gummy disappointment, and the peas and arugula served on top were too bitter to raise the risotto’s grade through extra credit.

Eating a meal at CafeBar is great if you like ongoing wrist-to-forehead drama punctuated by moments of transcendence. But it’s not so good if what you’re seeking is a reliable meal that’s low on theater.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that when CafeBar opened last fall—and when we gave it a Best New Restaurant nod—the restaurant could easily manage the 52 diners it accommodates inside. Then summer came, the patio opened, and suddenly the restaurant had 75 more seats to service—a 145 percent increase in capacity the small kitchen was simply not ready for.

The lack of consistency means that on busy nights, the pappardelle might arrive with too few vegetables and not enough Champagne butter; the potatoes next to the rib-eye are likely to be hard and undercooked; and the meat itself may suffer from an abundance of gristly fat that a little more chef-love could have easily taken care of.

Service, too, is wildly unpredictable. On the bar side one night, the bartender was in charge of table service, a task he clearly wasn’t trained for. “Can we have a drink menu?” I asked. “Uh. Yeah,” he said. Several long minutes later, he placed a cocktail list on the table, stared at it, and then asked, “Well?” He possessed no knowledge of the menu, no sense of timing, no sense of service at all. While this was the most egregious service failure, problems existed on other nights as well. The main issue? Servers tended to disappear for long stretches, which was nothing short of annoying.

And there’s the rub: If I lived in the Washington Park neighborhood, CafeBar would be the kind of place that would draw me in. I like Rivera’s philosophy. I like the space. But right now, the restaurant is simply not dependable enough for a weeknight when you want someone else to do the cooking.