Cafe 21 is one of my favorite brunch places (a rare occasion that I am up and out early enough for the sensible breakfast hours on a weekend). I’ve been to the one on Adams and Idaho several times and was pumped when I saw the newest location on 5th, so for the last day of my twenty-seventh year, I decided to grab my best foodie friend, Nicole, and just eat all day long, starting at Cafe 21 downtown.
Nicole and I parked at Horton Plaza and walked over to the restaurant. We were seated by an energetic, under-twenty-one-year-old (we were informed later) – a charmer, to say the least – at a table near the open front, which leads right into the patio area on the sidewalk. The decor is elegant yet homey, with a range of sangria lining the north wall, but I think there may have been some open sewage nearby, as an unpleasant, but light, scent lingered in the air, or perhaps that’s just downtown. Our waiter pulled up a chair to make small talk and offer his recommendations. Intrigued by the tiramisu pancakes (yes…), we inquired. He confirmed their perceived awesomeness, but he suggested we only go half order, even if we are sharing, so we did and ordered a mushroom omelet as well (I like to load up on protein in the morning).
When our food arrived, we made room for the generous portions. Looking at the tiramisu pancakes, we made some sort of exclamatory remark, and our waiter replied with, “I know, WTF?!” We chuckled as he paused dramatically before finishing his comment, “What? What the food?!” Ahhhh, we appreciate a good play on words, so we moved from our chuckle to a hearty laugh, and then dug in.
The omelet was delicious. I love the omelets here. They come hot in a skillet, and Cafe 21 does not skimp on ingredients or flavor, only usually the ingredients match what is on the menu, which ours did not. I ordered the mushroom omelet, which is supposed to have cremini mushrooms, grain mustard (yum), herb provence, and cheddar. As you can see in the picture, that’s not what we ended up with. Usually a dining travesty, we were hungry, and this looked good, too, so we rolled with it. Looking back at the menu, I could not place our dish with any of the options. It seemed a mix of several. I would have called it a Greek omelet, and not just by default because Nicole and I are both Greek, but the cheese was a slightly melting feta, and there was a mix of herbs, red and green peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. The omelet was well-seasoned and did not need any extra sauces or even additional salt and pepper. The dish came with a slice of house (sourdough) toast, and our selection of fresh fruit. I recommend the fruit as a side to anything here or maybe the strawberry and mixed greens salad, as most of the food is on the heavier side. Note to patrons: those little cubes on the toast…that’s butter, not cheese. You’ll notice we only have. We started with two…
The tiramisu pancakes were outrageously decadent. I mean, really, did anyone expect anything else? They come to you dripping in marscapone cheese sauce and cocoa powder and espresso sauce, which not only decorates the top, but it also surrounds the pancakes, so you essentially have a breakfast castle with a rich and shiny moat of scrumptiousness. Just in case that wasn’t enough, an extra bit of syrupy goodness comes on the side. The pancakes are surprisingly light and fluffy, the sweetness of the dish is cut by the marscapone. It was the kind of food you feel a little guilty eating, not so much because of the expected calories, but because you can’t help but dip every already drenched and big bite into extra sauce before you shove the layers of carbs into your mouth. Hey, they’re tiramisu pancakes. You have to go in expecting a new dimple on your left thigh to be served with your meal.
Here is what I recommend: share. Share better than we did. Don’t get two dishes and share them. Get one and maybe an extra side. So much food, even for us, and we can put it down.
We left full and with an extra few bucks in our pockets, as the waiter gave me a free birthday drink…which was the obvious brunch buddy, Diet Coke.
There are two Cafe 21 locations, 2736 Adams Ave, in University Heights, and 750 Fifth Ave., downtown. I’ve only been for brunch, but they do serve lunch and dinner. They open at 8 am everyday except Monday, when they are closed. Tuesday – Thursday, open until 10 pm, Friday and Saturday, open until 11 pm, and Sundays until 3 pm. You can call to make a reservation, except on the weekend, if I remember correctly, but if you get there before 10:30 am, you should not have to wait. The downtown location seems a bit better if you have a slightly larger party than the tight University Height location.
Vegetarian options are plentiful in the mornings, including meat-free omelets, a variety of pancakes, Azeri toast (basically French toast), veggie cakes, salads, veggie sandwiches (pesto with eggs or roasted eggplant), and crepes. Vegan options are very limited (specially ordered salads).