Carla Meyer

Dining review: Tower Cafe hasn't evolved with Sacramento dining scene

I don't mind having ideas that place me in the minority.

But nothing seems to distance me from the mainstream more than my misgivings about the Tower Café, the beloved restaurant on Broadway that, like a golden retriever, wants to be loved by everyone.

It proclaims on its menus that it opened on Earth Day in 1990, which is really cool until they hand you giant clear plastic containers for your leftovers.

Tower Café is where everyone else in town seems willing to line up for 45 minutes on Sundays for a piece of "famous" French toast, a dish involving stale bread that takes eight minutes to make at home. Many rave about desserts that never taste as good as they look.

It's crowded morning, noon and night, even if the restaurant's cluttered, eclectic décor is scarier than Joan Rivers before hair and makeup, and the touted "international cuisine" should really be called "disappointment without borders."

The wait staff is more hit-or-miss than Shaquille O'Neal from the free-throw line. The employee training program seems to start and stop with, "Here's your apron."

While I maintain that some of the Tower faithful need to look more critically at this cafe and more openly at the new and improved dining scene that has sprung up around it, I realize that my largely negative reaction to the place may be out of sync. Indeed, many friends I respect are part of the Tower Café fan club.

By many accounts, the Tower Café has made something of a comeback in recent years. In the early 2000s, customers sat in plastic Rubbermaid-style chairs, tolerated bad service and slogged their way through unappetizing food. Back then, when I ordered an espresso, I received what amounted to 8 ounces of warm, brown water.

I had enough uninspired visits that I took this joint out of my rotation years ago. But if today's version is an example of a rejuvenated Tower Café, then it has made it back to a level I would call mediocre.

The first thing that hits you is the décor, a decorating nightmare in which someone thought it was a good idea to buy up gargoyles, animal carvings, tapestries, sombreros, framed Frida Kahlo-style prints, knickknacks of all shapes and sizes, then plaster the walls with them and pull it all together by stringing fake flowers everywhere.

This decorating scheme sets the table for the restaurant's concept – international cuisine. That probably seemed like a good idea 20 years ago. But the plethora of neighboring ethnic restaurants along very international Broadway handles every dish better than the corresponding version at Tower – more flair, more flavor, more command of the cooking.

Alas, this well-intentioned restaurant tries to do too much and be too much. Its vision has not evolved in the past decade while Sacramento's restaurant scene has flourished. In this market, staying the same means you are falling behind.

Over the course of several visits – breakfast, lunch and dinner – I sampled food that ranged from subpar to so-so, cuisine that spans the globe but never really gets off the ground. Even the "famous" French toast had me wondering if they meant "infamous," as the bread was oversaturated and still gooey in the middle.

The "Nicaraguan black bean soup" is the same dismally dull, under- seasoned offering I tasted when I moved to town in 1999. It was the most disappointing soup in memory – until two days later when I ordered Tower's soup of the day, "Jalisco beans and pork," with a flavor profile I would charitably describe as "stealthy."

The "Chinese chicken salad," which appears to be a Western contrivance found in many chain restaurants, was also noteworthy for its absence of genuine flavor. If it aspired to be bland, it fell short. The "Brazilian chicken" salad, featuring a warm chicken breast amid cool mango and ice-box cold tomatoes, was marginally better, though the lopsided heat dispersion made the dish less appealing, not more.

If you're wondering how to quickly distinguish a kitchen that is operating on convenience mode, look for cold tomatoes and warm wine. Tower has both, and both are a disservice when it comes to your taste buds.

Also for lunch, we had the "earth burger" and fries. This meat-free patty is actually not bad, but the fries were a flop. The texture was all wrong – squishy without any bite.

On and on it goes with the menu – a little bit of Italian, a lot of Mexican, clumsy peregrinations throughout South America and maybe a stop or two in Spain and Greece, all for naught.

The "Jamaican Jerk chicken" features poultry that was fine, but the sauce was yet another pale impersonation of the real deal.

Why not just do chicken the Tower way and stop trying to wave the international flag to such an extent it feels either cynical or naive.

Can this cluttered yet underrealized concept be remedied? Can the Tower Café rise above mediocre?

The answer is simple: Take two-thirds of the knickknacks off the wall and you'll probably express the international theme more clearly. While you're at it, touch up the peeling paint, cover the grime on the ceiling and clean the window frames. The place looks dirty and tired.

Pare down the menu and focus on international dishes that really shine, balancing fresh ideas with exotic but familiar flavors. Check out what they do at a place like Magpie Cafe and work the same side of the street – exquisite sourcing of ingredients and an approach to cooking without limits but with a focus on what they do really well.

The international idea is still viable. But sometimes doing less and doing it better is the best way to make a statement about what you want to be.

If the Tower aspires to a new level of restaurant experience, it cannot afford to stand still forever. As comfortable as it is and as easy as it is to dine there, this beloved restaurant must cut through all the clutter and confusion – on the walls and throughout the menu.