When it first became clear that Cafe Dantorels was catching on and that its business seemed to be surpassing its predecessor, Crepeville, I wondered why.
Cafe Dantorels bought Crepeville about two years ago, and slowly but surely the crowds began to embrace the new eatery, even though the basic menu remained the same. The Tuscan-style building has become something of a neighborhood landmark, both for its European flair and the fact that its stucco facade may be too orange for its own good.
Was the cooking now a cut above? Had the new owners spruced up the place? Was it more fun? Were they doing all the little things – or some, at least – that contribute to an enhanced dining experience?
Or were the people in Curtis Park simply so eager for a neighborhood eatery that they were willing to throw their support behind this new venture no matter what? When it was Crepeville, this location never really seemed to catch on. It’s not as if the Crepeville folks don’t know what they’re doing. In addition to two other Crepevilles, they own the always-busy Burgers and Brew, with locations in midtown, Davis and Chico.
I’m always interested in learning how a restaurant gains momentum. But after three visits to Cafe Dantorels, the answers are less clear than I anticipated. Overall, the food in this casual dining category is decent, but no better than its predecessor. The order-at-the-counter service is friendly, though there are few signs of polish that would suggest a heightened level of customer care. The acoustics are terrible, as they were before, and one night there was live music inside, which made conversations all but impossible.
For dinner on our first visit, the cooking was adequate, though the spaghetti Bolognese was mediocre at best – a tad sweet and lacking a complexity in the meat sauce. The hamburger ($9.95), a major feature of the menu, was much too dry.
The oversized and colorful blackboard menu from the Crepeville days seemed to be nearly identical to Cafe Dantorels’, featuring a small number of entrees, numerous combinations for crepes both savory and sweet, several sandwiches and salads, and lots of burgers. This is the kind of restaurant where there are cooks executing standard dishes with expediency rather than with a sense of place and personality.
The savory crepes we ordered were satisfactory, but nothing more – one filled with cheese, tomatoes, olives and avocado and topped with salsa, the other with ham and rather bland chunks of pineapple – along with a pasta special with a cream sauce that was tasty but a little soupy.
The highlight that night was not the food but the beer. Cafe Dantorels has wisely recognized that quality beer can make an impression. Look no farther than across the street at Curtis Park Market, where new ownership has transformed an under-performing small grocery store into a bustling craft beer destination.
At the cafe, there are 12 craft beers on tap and they are very good selections, including a mix of local, West Coast and national craft beers. I had a pale ale from Firestone Walker in Pasa Robles that worked well with the Bolognese. The Allagash Black, a stout with notes of chocolate and coffee, might have been a nice pairing with the burger if it weren’t cooked beyond our requested medium.
What was going on here? Pedestrian food at this price point usually results in empty tables. Not only were there no noticeable flourishes from the kitchen, but some of the expected execution fell short as well. Nevertheless, the place was packed and people seemed to be having a good time. While the interior, with its tall ceiling and hard surfaces, is practically a cringe-inducing echo chamber, the outdoor seating is absolutely lovely.
As for the food, our second visit was slightly worse than the first. Any hope of enjoying a satisfying burger again went up in flames with a repeat performance of over-grilling – this time for a turkey burger served with chipotle mayo and provolone. The seafood fettuccine was decent but hardly stellar; the best part about it was the portion and price – $12.95.
The steak salad with arugula was quite good, including tender, tasty beef. But the so-called Greek salad was forgettable and bland, a generic offering with feta and olives. The dessert crepes were also less than good. The apple caramel crepe, for instance, had apples that were undercooked and unseasoned.
One night, I decided to visit the midtown Crepeville for comparison. It owners sold the Curtis Park business to Cafe Dantorels, which kept the concept. The burgers at Crepeville were cooked more accurately and were much juicier. The crepes were better, too. Its apple crepe featured slices of apple that were more tender, and they had been seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. And the ubiquitous cottage potatoes were seasoned better and cooked with more care. The garlic fries at Dantorels, on the other hand, were quite tasty.
I’m a big fan of omelets, as they reveal plenty about the skill set and attention to detail in the kitchen. So I returned to Cafe Dantorels for breakfast and was impressed. I picked my own ingredients – spinach, mushrooms and peppers – and enjoyed this dish for its flavor and texture. While there could have been more curd development with the egg, there were no signs of browning that we see coming out of careless breakfast spots.
The coffee program is also relatively serious. Dantorels carries coffee from Temple and Insight, two high-caliber local roasters, and its cappuccinos even include latte art, rarely seen at restaurants.
My search for answers about why this restaurant is so crowded so often came up with the only one that makes sense: The people in the Curtis Park neighborhood really want it there and want to see it succeed. It’s certainly not a destination eatery, and I can’t say it’s worth driving across town to check it out. I do recommend it as a place for a quick bite and some good beer or wine. It’s also a good bet for breakfast with quality coffee.
But if Cafe Dantorels is going to maintain its momentum and embrace the obvious goodwill from the neighborhood, it must take a careful look at what’s missing in the kitchen and take meaningful steps to improve the food.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.