Restaurants You Shouldn't Miss
Reviewed by Rebecca Chastenet dé Gery, Fri., March 17, 2000
HighLife Cafe407 E. Seventh, 474-5338
Sun-Wed, 9am-midnight; Thu-Sat, 9am-1am
Just last weekend I was singing the HighLife Cafe's praises to a friend who was looking for a good first lunch date destination. "It's got this great intimate quality about it without being in-your-face romantic," I told him. "It's downtown, but hidden from the Sixth Street student/tourist beat, and it manages to serve food that is casual and still confidently sophisticated." I went on to describe my favorite breakfast offerings (a chilled basmati rice pudding dressed up with milk, spices, and pistachios, and the house-made granola), and rave about HighLife's imaginative sandwiches stacked on dense, earthy hearth breads. I added that HighLife's appetizer selection, including an out-of-this-world Mediterranean Nacho plate, and its lengthy wine/port/beer list, make it a great place to unwind over drinks or after hours. Just in case he needed extra convincing, I plugged the cafe's handful of variations on smoked Idaho trout (with eggs, as a complement to charcuterie, tossed in a salad with hazelnuts and broccoli, layered in a sandwich with red onion and grainy mustard, and served chilled as an entree with polenta and a salad). Needless to say, I sold my friend on HighLife, and he returned from the restaurant ready to vouch, himself, for everything I'd said.
Begun by Scott Campbell and Mary Hall Rodman in July 1996, HighLife Cafe feels a little bit like an honest country pub except that there is nothing "bumpkin" about the place. It's a place to which regulars return to find peace and quiet and/or intelligent conversation, without the hubbub and distraction found at other popular downtown spots. Don't get me wrong -- HighLife Cafe can handle a crowd and is very often full. But somehow it still feels more civilized than other bars/coffeehouses/cafes.
Inside, bare limestone walls and wooden floors greet customers who can pile around faux copper-topped tables, sidle up to the imposing wooden bar, or settle into a voguish worn sofa or armchair before ordering. Well-stocked bookshelves contain recent issues of The New York Times and other newspapers, an odd selection of magazines, and a wealth of hand-me-down books. Vintage jazz generally flows from the cafe's speakers in the evenings while HighLife's morning music possesses a more classical bent.
I've said in previous reviews and in the numerous honors the Chronicle has bestowed on the cafe that part of what makes HighLife so appealing is its subtle sophistication. The restaurant's food is consistently top-of-the-line. In my opinion, what really makes the HighLife Cafe worth a visit is that Rodman and Campbell have a rare talent. They have developed a menu that displays plenty of imagination, but as one visit will show you, the cafe's meals stay grounded and delightfully unaffected, with no concessions to the trendy, outlandish, or frivolous. And of course, they taste good, too.