Grub/Spirits Restaurant Reviews — 16 November 2011
Cafeteria: A Restaurant Review

119 Seventh Avenue at 17th Street, Chelsea
Getting There: 1 to 18th Street

If you’ve spent any time walking through Chelsea, and certainly when the weather accommodates, you’ve noticed Cafeteria. Draped in white and equipped with an outdoor seating area that makes you sift through the faces in the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of some local celebrity slurping up eggs, the restaurant is more or less a cool, upscale diner nouveau. While the ‘D’ word certainly doesn’t do it justice, Cafeteria’s all-over-the-place menu and 24 hour service aligns itself more closely with American diner food than perhaps any other kind. But the cuisine here (especially the brunch menu), is simply better than you’ll get at any run-of-the-mill greasepit. Perhaps that’s why reservations are so essential, and why wait times can run long.

Weekend brunches at Cafeteria almost certainly guarantee you’ll be waiting for a table- the neighborhood, clientele, and the dare I say, classier dining vibe demand it. Inside, the small hoststand is directly in front of the entrance leaving little room to stand inside and wait. Just behind that lies a bar area, also packed with hungry patrons, most of whom are killing time, sipping bloody marys and mimosas, waiting to be sat. But the energy inside is palpable, the atmosphere is fun, and the table conversations are loud- an indication that the diners are enjoying themselves, making the short wait far more tolerable.

Unfortunately, with the approach of cooler temperatures, our visit would not allow us to dine outdoors. Our seats near the windows though, did not detract from what became a very good first experience here. Much of the menu is comfort food, from their full breakfasts of pancakes, croissants, waffles, and French toasts to their multiple takes on mac and cheese – in spring roll form ($10), or your basic version ($9), or made with truffle oil ($12) or with smoked gouda and bacon ($10)- to their entrees- a heaping portion of “fried chicken and waffles” ($18) and a garlic mash laden plate of “the meatloaf” ($16).

Our brunch was a little less flashy, however. We made every effort to taste at least a sample of every course. Crispy, smoked bacon strips and gargantuan crumbles of bleu cheese enveloped the fresh green bibb lettuce on “the wedge” ($10), a nice change of pace from the traditional iceberg variety. Also worth mentioning was an outstanding bowl of “tomato basil soup” ($6). Served with a small fontina grilled cheese sandwich sitting mid-bowl, the savory, creamy soup was delicious on its own- the accompanying dipped bread helped to lap up the remaining drops excellently. Breakfast-wise, the small but delicate “spinach benedict sliders” ($9) were served atop cooked cheddar grit cakes, with the poached eggs running beautifully over the steamed spinach leaves. Where the portion may have been miniature, the flavors were good, and the price was certainly right.

For heartier fare, the “grilled salmon BLT” ($15) definitely hit the spot. Flimsy slabs of bacon, joined creamy avocado, tomato, and greens, with a light pesto mayo to accompany the well cooked grilled fish, sided with a small basket of fries. For our full-fledged entrée, the “rosemary grilled hanger steak” was served with two large polenta fries and a side white bean salad. The steak was sliced up for us and cooked nicely to a medium rare, with a salty and charred outer layer, and the combination of all three flavors worked well together.

Cafeteria has seemingly found a niche in preparing comfort foods for a higher end clientele, while also remaining open all day every day. It’s a setting that embodies the young and cool, dressing up for a dressed down meal, with the service and attitude you’d expect from a more lavish place. I guess even comfort food deserves finer prep and service sometimes.

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