Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Through the Screen Lightly

Breakfast, beer and satisfaction at 821 Café.



Instead of sleeping in till noon, daylight-averse hipsters come to eat at 821 Café. Past the band flyers in the window, through the ancient, continually slamming screen door, there's a small oasis of vintage kitchen tables, original, rotating artwork, and musical eclecticism (anything from Herb Alpert to '80s hardcore), dimly lighted to disguise the grime.

Yet the staff, which tends to slow down when business gets heavy, imbues their little joint with warmth, good, cheap food, and a well-thought-out beer selection. Think of The Village Café minus the street life — inside and out.

Nightcrawlers have to leave by 10 p.m., but if they're still up the next morning at 8, they can alleviate nascent hangovers with the standard egg/pork/toast-or-a-biscuit breakfast, augmented by rosemary potatoes or creamy, long-simmered grits. Even better is the enormous breakfast burrito, brimming with black beans, scrambled eggs, potatoes and superfluous pork or veggie sausage. Skip the meat and ask for extra homemade salsa and Sriracha hot sauce to cut through the morning gloom. And if it's your birthday or you really need a carb-intense excuse to face the day, the banana pancakes, high and fluffy, have just the right amount of crisp around the edges, while the caramelized slices of banana inside catapult ordinary breakfast fare into addictive culinary territory.

Sandwiches dominate the menu the rest of the day (although breakfast can be had until 5 p.m. for truly late risers), and if you like your burgers fat, juicy, cooked to your specifications (instead of the chef's) and seared to within an inch of their life without compromising their medium-rare integrity, you've come to the right place. In fact, 821 Café's Bizarro world counterpart, Can Can Brasserie up at the other end of Cary St., is the only other place in town that matches the juice-to-meaty-crunch ratio that defines the perfect burger. Can Can wins hands down in the fries department, but it's not really a competition, is it? And can you get a BLT piled with a decadently immodest amount of bacon there?

At 821, besides diner standards like club sandwiches, Philly cheese steaks and the inevitable portobello sub for the vegetarian crowd, on offer is a greaseless fried artichoke sub that combines fresh spinach, provolone and spicy brown mustard, with a surprisingly sweet artichoke center amongst the shatter of deep-fried goodness.

Vegan customers not only are welcome but also embraced, and among the mostly forgettable dinner entrees is an inspiring portobello-artichoke-heart combo that belies the assumption (well, mine anyway), that no meat and no dairy means healthy but utterly boring food. Although the accompanying steamed asparagus would be better off roasted instead of left to hang limply, it's easily pushed aside for three fat mushrooms exuding a judicious whiff of balsamic savor, plugged with a garlicky artichoke heart, sharp, sun-dried tomatoes, and soft squash over herb-laced orzo.

Meat-based dishes like the pan-seared pork medallions are tasteless and dry in comparison and better off left alone.

Desserts are the one real weakness of the place. With a counter and row of stools that screams for homemade pie under a vintage glass dome, you can get an OK cup of coffee with Costco-like cheesecake. Not that there's anything wrong with cheesecake, but pie à la mode or something like the softly yielding red velvet cake baked up at Table 9 would be more befitting to the cool, idiosyncratic atmosphere casually cultivated here.

Stick with 821's strengths — breakfast, sandwiches, vegetarian options, and beer — and leave the fancy food to the big boys elsewhere. Artists need to eat and so do musicians, and even tattooed students still attending classes at Virginia Commonwealth University can cross the street from the parking deck and get a decent meal without losing their wallets.

821 Café comes complete with its own My Space page (Google "812 Cafe and MySpace for the link), 221 "friends" and a description that includes "tight tunes, tight dudes, [and a] comfy laid-back atmosphere." Although you might be tempted to tell your neighbor at the next table that skinny jeans and a white belt aren't the best sartorial choices if you're 6-foot-4 and 98 pounds, just keep your mouth shut. Instead, squint through the cigarette smoke and focus on the solid, cheap eats and ever-changing musical choices. S

821 Café ($)
821 W. Cary St.
Tuesday-Friday 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
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