Restaurant Review: Resturant Reviews
This old-timey-style diner satisfies with true American comfort food
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007
Counter Cafe626 N. Lamar, 708-8800
Tuesday-Friday, 9am-9pm; Saturday & Sunday, 9am-3pm (breakfast all day)
One of the hottest trends in the American dining scene has to be the resurgence of the diner – smallish, quick-service cafes with counter seating facing open kitchens. Often family-owned and operated, these little gems are known for regional comfort-food menus as well as a comforting sense of community. Debbie Davis' Counter Cafe is a perfect example. The former Austinite returned home earlier this year and lavished loving care and plenty of cleaning products on the former G&M Steakhouse location. If those smoke-and-grease-stained walls could have talked, they would have told tales of irascible former owner Gus Vayas serving up breakfast to local political legend Bob Bullock and countless Texas legislators. These days, there is no smoke, everything is sparkling clean, and a new community of loyal regulars is being established. The new crowd is attracted by a small, simple menu based as much as possible on locally sourced, naturally raised, and often organic ingredients, paired with down-home friendliness. The Counter Cafe is a definite keeper.
I've shared the Counter Cafe with friends for both breakfast and lunch and found satisfaction every time. The fried-egg sandwich ($7) offers two fried eggs, nitrate-free bacon, and cheese on nine-grain toast with lettuce, tomato, and red onion. For a BLT lover, it's a home run. I've also sampled big, flaky biscuits with delicious cream gravy ($3) washed down with Good Flow orange juice ($4) and a cup of organically grown coffee ($2). There are crab cakes and eggs ($9) and an all-natural hanger steak and eggs ($10, served all day) for folks looking for an even more substantial breakfast. I'm especially fond of the pimento-cheese sandwich ($8) at lunchtime. It can be paired with a little house salad, the fine Counter fries, seasonal fruit, or a cup of soup. My lunch companions enjoyed the bountiful crab cakes ($10), three crab-rich beauties served with chopped red onions, capers, plus lemon aioli and curried peanut sauces for dipping. We were less impressed with the Polenta Fried Oysters ($8), finding the polenta coating too thick and gloppy for our tastes. And even though none of us considered herself a big fan of cheesecake, we devoured a lovely slice of mascarpone cheesecake topped with fresh strawberries and demanded to meet the person who had prepared it. Unfortunately, that talented young pastry cook is no longer in the Counter Cafe kitchen, but owner Davis vows to uphold the fine dessert tradition he started.
Within the last few months, Counter Cafe has added dinner hours on Tuesday through Friday, offering the lunch menu with a blackboard listing of dinner specials. True American comfort-food items such as chicken pot pie ($11) and meatloaf ($14) with homey sides are developing a loyal following. Our recent dinner there included the grilled Bandera quail ($12), a perfectly grilled bird atop a salad of tender baby spinach tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, feta cheese, strawberries, and red onion, plus the evening special: a toothsome grilled filet of black drum ($14) over Israeli couscous paired with smoky grilled asparagus. The Counter Cafe is a welcome addition to an old West Austin neighborhood and definitely worth a visit. Sit at the counter, have a chat with the chef, and you'll feel right at home.