All Night Long
For a place where the party goes on 24/7, South Beach has surprisingly few restaurants that are open 24/7. Snack joints where one can fuel up on a slice, sure. But real restaurants -- where night people can experience real meals -- even vaguely comparable in style, excitement, and fun to the clubs those people have just left in search of a breather, a bite, or even a civilized conversation with whomever they've been dancing with for the past five hours? As if.
So being a night person myself (not an exciting one; I just work late, but workaholics get the 4:00 a.m. munchies too), I could hardly wait for Cafeteria to open on Lincoln Road mall; it's a Southern outpost of the well-known, six-year-old, round-the clock restaurant/lounge in Manhattan. But wait I did. Construction snafus delayed the opening for almost a year -- not as long as Nobu's debut at the Shore Club, but Nobu wasn't a 24-hour spot.
Actually, SoBe's Cafeteria wasn't either when it finally did debut in late November. But if all goes according to schedule, it will be open 24/7 by the time this review hits the streets -- which will be a boon for foodie nightfolk. Because even if the food and the service aren't quite Nobu quality, the fare is very much what most people crave in the wee hours: creatively updated comfort food, the sort of simple but stylish stuff you'd expect if Wolfgang Puck opened an All American diner. And the service, fortunately, is not what you'd expect in the wee hours in SoBe: Attitudinous (capital A intended).
Or at least there was no major model/waiter syndrome in evidence on my recent two visits, a necessary qualification because some diners who tried Cafeteria during its first month and a half reportedly had less-than-positive close encounters of the server kind. Among those was my dining companion Brian -- who was eagerly anticipating severe server abuse, so I would nail the place in print for the sins of his previous three visits. "Once I took my parents there for lunch," he explained, "and there was, like, no one there. But the waitress said that we would have to go sit in the bar while we waited for a table. My father pointed out really nicely that there were all these tables. And she snapped, in the meanest voice: 'I'd rather you just sit down!'" They did. In another restaurant.
If you were one of Cafeteria's early food-fight casualties, however, the place's New Bedford lobster roll alone would make it worthwhile to try again. Piled into a supersize version of a side-split, soft hot dog roll, toasted with plenty of chive/garlic butter, was more fresh lobster than I've seen inside many single whole lobster shells -- and the moist meat was neither padded with excessive mayonnaise and celery nor overwhelmed by spices. Accompanying fries were good if you like those big, thick steak fries (if you don't, be warned that a friend who attempted to pay the 50-cent difference to substitute shoestring sweet potato fries was refused), and a most unusual coleslaw was outstanding, featuring crisp, thinly shredded stuff with zero gloppiness factor and as much red onion as cabbage. Important note: The lobster roll is served only after 6:00 p.m.
Also terrific were Cafeteria's takes on two overexposed dishes: Macaroni and cheese offered soft but not mushy elbow pasta in a mellow cheddar/fontina sauce, quite as satisfying as trendied-up versions of this item I've had at two or three times the price; and the fried calamari were tender morsels in a crisp cornmeal crust that came with an intensely fresh-tasting roasted-tomato sauce as well as an herbed horseradish remoulade, which had disappointingly little horseradish heat but still served as smooth, tart contrast to the calamari's richness and crunch. The squid's serving size was very generous.
Spicy fried oyster salad contained half a dozen small oysters with the same beautifully crisp cornmeal crust, and a similar sauce problem: The horseradish dressing on the salad (described as avocado, fennel, watercress, and chicory, but mostly without the first two ingredients) completely lacked horseradish bite. It also suffered from vinegar overload, but it was too sparsely applied to the greens to make much of an impression anyway. Next time, if the No Substitution Sergeants are off duty, I plan to try to sub the better buttermilk garlic dressing that comes on the crispy calamari salad.
More satisfying as well as more substantial was a cornmeal-crusted catfish po'boy, moist and meaty fillets of mild fish on a kaiser roll with horseradish remoulade on the side and homemade potato chips.
The same catfish comes as Friday's "Blue Plate Special"; one dish daily is added to Cafeteria's list of a dozen and a half full dinner entrées, which includes the lobster roll. The list also includes a respectable fried chicken, crisply battered in -- why, yes, cornmeal: However did you guess? A topping of white superthickened flour gravy was bland but comforting. The chicken came accompanied, in traditional Southern style, by a few fluffy buttermilk waffle triangles and some syrup that would've gone down a lot less cloyingly had the menu, which has tendencies toward preciousness, not insisted on calling the stuff maple "jus."
Tuna tartare has been found for ten years at every joint in town aspiring to hipness, but Cafeteria's fortunately follows the genuinely newish trend away from faux-Asian sesame oil overload. Instead the sushi-grade diced tuna was flavored with a subtly sweet/sour citrus vinaigrette with a hint of orange and more than a hint of heat. The mound of tuna came flanked by tomato, avocado, radish sprouts, and several yuca chips that I'd advise you grab before your tablemates realize they're much better than usual.
Though similarly postmodern sleek in its décor, SoBe's Cafeteria is not just an architectural clone of the Chelsea original (do note the fabulous Deco automobile relief over the front door from the building's days as a Cadillac showroom, uncovered during those construction delays), and the menu is not exactly the same either. One nice add: pizzas, which my buddy Brian refused to order, fearing they'd be as disappointing as most pies usually are in nonpizzeria joints.
On a return visit, though, I couldn't help but notice a truly serious-looking pizza oven in the semiopen kitchen by the front bar, and the thin, nicely crusted "Classic" pizza that came out of it (really a Margherita: mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil). It was close to the equal of those from Lincoln Road's two world-class pizza palaces, Spris and Piola.
Wash the designer pie down with one of Cafeteria's world-class cocktails -- a caipirinha was particularly tasty, and potent -- and sit at one of the resto-lounge's outside tables on the pedestrian mall, where conversation is possible even after the thumping bass elevates to Excedrin-headache levels at 10:00 p.m. or so, and it will seem like Cafeteria is just what SoBe nightlife needed.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.