For those of us who remember childhoods where restaurant eating was a special-occasion-only event, last year’s seismic shift in American spending habits was mind-blowing. For the first time, retail sales at bars and restaurants overtook those at grocery stores.
While eating out has become as ingrained in our social activities as moviegoing, the plain truth is we don’t always want a fancy meal. And the reality is that although eating out may qualify as a timesaver, it’s not always easy on the wallet.
Enter places such as Plant Zero Cafe, with full service and entrees in the $10 to $14 range. Its wall of roll-up garage doors and a slender balcony for dining al fresco, makes it a worthy fair-weather destination. Adjacent to Art Works, the light-filled cafe awash in local art has been serving breakfast and lunch since 2014, but it recently added dinner service with five starters and a half dozen entrees.
Simple pleasures range from crab dip to several pasta dishes of bountiful enough proportions to guarantee leftovers, to a trio of desserts, including locally made cupcakes.
The simplicity of a balsamic platter ($6) alternating fresh mozzarella, slices of plum tomatoes, cucumbers and basil in a balsamic reduction makes it an easy default to kick off a meal. Southwest empanadas ($6), crispy pockets substantial enough to qualify as a meal, arrive three to an order and piping hot, the fried pastry crackling with each bite. Filled with chicken, black beans, corn, peppers and cheese, the mixture’s overall impression is tasty, but stops just short of cohesion.
Almost as ubiquitous as Chrome messenger bags on college freshmen, Brussels sprouts ($8) have shot up the trend meter to become menu staples. These are crisped in a frying pan before getting an assist from goat cheese and toasted walnuts, and are tied together with a drizzle of tangy apple-honey glaze.
Pasta dishes tilt generous, and none more so than the linguine carbonara ($13) with grilled toast points. Ham and mushrooms punctuate a traditional Parmesan and bacon sauce that clings to the linguine like lint to a sweater — a comparison I mean in the best possible way. Shrimp and grits ($12) share a big bowl and become racy with a pool of mild Gorgonzola cream sauce on top, although the shrimp are not blackened as promised on the menu. It’s a small point, but one constant over three visits is an overly light hand with salt, herbs and seasoning — an easily correctable issue.
Vegetarians can feast on mushroom and brie mac ($10), a belly filler of penne, sautéed mushrooms and onions in a creamy cheese sauce under a bloomy-tasting blanket of melted Brie. Mildly pungent and hugely filling, it’s not for the faint of appetite.
Look no further than zucchini noodle salad ($10) for a light meal that’s available with grilled chicken or shrimp. Ribbons of zucchini join forces with pasta, kalamata olives, corn, tomatoes and feta in a mild red wine vinaigrette for a simple supper starring the bounty of late summer. Oddly enough, it took three visits before the dish was available, a real head scratcher since the reason given — that the kitchen was out of zucchini — seemed the unlikeliest of hot weather scenarios. The rare restaurant of my acquaintance offering this particular childhood memory, Plant Zero Cafe’s stuffed peppers ($10) differ from my mom’s only in that the rice is on the plate and not part of the cheddar-covered chicken, corn and black bean mixture loaded into green pepper halves.
At $14, the crab cakes are the priciest item on the menu, but also the best value. Two petite yet fat crab cakes seduce with their golden brown exterior and plus-sized lump crab meat and minimal filler interior. Cajun remoulade adds sass, and grilled asparagus and a small garden salad round out the plate.
Paramount among Plant Zero Cafe’s charms is its winning service, in my case supplied by the same young man on all my visits. He never fails to remind us about happy hour beer and wine specials, consistently drops off food with a smile and is charmingly attentive to our needs throughout the meal.
When I mention I’m dining at the cafe to an artist rinsing out paintbrushes in the bathroom, she says, “Isn’t it great? I can afford it!” She’s not the only one. S
Plant Zero Cafe
Mondays 8 a.m.-4 p.m.;
Tuesdays-Thursdays 8 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Fridays 8 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Saturdays 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
3 E. Third St.