The best advice we can offer about City Cafe is this: If you have long dismissed it as an okay sandwich and brunch spot or an evening haunt with over-loud music and dated décor, it's time to give it another try.
During the summer, the cafe went through a major renovation ($700,000 worth, we're told). Gone are the black-and-white-checkerboard floor tiles and the ever-changing color blast on the dining-room walls (purple on Ravens game days). Cafe chairs have been replaced by molded plywood "ant chairs" (a la Arne Jacobsen). Banquettes have been re-upholstered in Eames-designed gold fabric with a mid-century atomic particle motif.
The awkward staircase to the second level has been relocated, and now, instead of taking spillover diners to a space that felt like an afterthought, it leads to an elegant and intimate dining room with the latest floor covering of woven vinyl (which resembles bamboo), brown leather dining chairs, and strategically placed spotlights.
Mind you, City Cafe was never really broken. Since it opened in 1994 as a corner coffee shop—and expanded over the next few years, adding a restaurant and then a bar—it's been plenty reliable.
But even with these changes, the critical addition is in the kitchen. After all these years, City Café has a chef. The able-and-hard-working lineup of cooks has been succeeded by a guy with a vision—and an attitude.
Chad Gauss—who seems to be creeping southward (he moved with Daniel Chaustit from Christopher Daniel in Timonium to Crush at Belvedere Square, where he was second in command)—brings his fine-dining cooking skills to his new job. And while we didn't meet Gauss in person, we could feel his personality and sense of fun simply by reading the menu.
There's a droll irony, for example, in the "TV Dinner," a long plate equally divided into portions of Salisbury steak topped with deep brown gravy, shiny mashed potatoes, and a vegetable medley. But any comparison to Swanson ends there.
The beef is Kobe, hammered to a crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture. The mashed potatoes are creamy, and the vegetables—corn, green beans, diced carrots, and edamame (meant, we guess, to resemble the cardboard-flavored lima beans so commonplace in the 1960s)—taste like, well, vegetables. There's even a wedge of brownie balanced on the side of the plate.
And the $15 price was as much a throwback to a bygone era as the moniker. (Truthfully, we're not sure if, even if we'd been aware of dining trends in the '60s, we would have had a clue about Kobe beef).
Equally amusing are the "Three Little Pigs": a grilled pork loin topped with a healthy dollop of pulled pork, crowned by strips of crisp bacon, and "The Usual Suspects," a petit filet and crab cake (surprise).
Not all of Gauss's derivatives work so well. We ordered the iceberg wedge salad because it seemed like the right choice with a dry martini in a Danish modern setting. The simplicity of the classic dish was compromised by the addition of balsamic vinaigrette, tangy sweet and fighting with the creamy bleu cheese and salty bacon. A small matter easily remedied.
The menu has plenty of options for 21st century diners. There's seared tuna with grated beets and truffle mashed potatoes, the seemingly ubiquitous lobster mac 'n' cheese (here with plenty of meat, but lacking lobster flavor throughout the dish), and meal-sized salads—beef tenderloin, Caesar with chicken, shrimp or salmon, Asian-inspired "Chicken Fun." There's a flatbread pizza, a Baltimore club (with crab cake and shrimp salad), and steak frites with truffle-parmesan fries.
Gauss, we're told, plans to change the menu every month or so to keep up with all that's fresh and seasonal. He grows herbs in flower boxes that line the restaurant's big windows. In late summer, the appetizer list featured bruschetta with tomatoes, watermelon, and feta, as well as fried green tomatoes peppered with generous hunks of crabmeat. A friend who had recently been to N'awlins was all over those tomatoes—better than K-Paul's, she gushed. Indeed, the batter was crisp, and the beurre blanc luminous and tangy with lemon.
City Cafe's waitstaff is professional and well informed. Our affable waiter was spot on in his recommendations for martinis and wines. On another visit, we observed him training a recruit and felt satisfied the newbie was in good hands.
If you go to City Cafe looking for familiar territory, you're still likely to find it (new floors and furniture notwithstanding). Scrambled eggs are available for breakfast and a curried chicken-salad sandwich for lunch. You can stop in after the theater and see the same array of bakery cakes—double chocolate, coconut-frosted white cake, and red velvet—in the cafe's case.
But we recommend you step into the dining room or retreat upstairs and order from the new and improved restaurant menu. There you'll find a flourless chocolate cake, oozing with warm melted chocolate with a miniature bowl of frozen cappuccino on the side, or a spongy bread pudding with a sweet Heath bar brickle topping and caramel sauce.
City Cafe seems proof that a restaurant can keep up with the times by looking ahead and looking back.