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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.
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.