Downtown has been a fairly exciting place for restaurants. In the last few years, quite a number of great options have popped up, including Mayberry, Nada, Sung Korean Bistro, It's Just Crepes and Taqueria Mercado. With that came several great losses, including the beloved Javier's, Flo's Plateful of Soul and my all-time Downtown favorite, Dink's. Volatility is virtually synonymous with the restaurant business; it's one of the reasons why food blogging is an awful lot of fun.
The following are capsule reviews of five Downtown restaurants, a mixture of both the old and the new.
Sunny Deli441 Vine St
Sunny Deli has been around awhile, selling a line of breakfast and deli sandwiches, salads and soups. But the place really shines with it's short line of daily "Signature Well-Being" specials, all derived from the owner's native Korea.
On Wednesdays, Bibimbap is the name of the game here: for $7.99 you get a generous mound of vegetables, rice, bulgogi beef and as much spicy, red Gochujang sauce as you can stomach. The Bibimbap's presentation is a bit messier than what you'd find in larger restaurants and no Dolsot version is available (a variation made in a hot stone bowl that crisps the rice underneath), but it's tasty stuff in its own right and there is plenty of it.
Other daily "well-being" specials include a spicy chicken, vegetable and rice bowl (served Tuesdays and Thursdays) as well as vegetable and chicken fried rice bowls (Monday's and Fridays) and Asian dumplings.
Vine St. Kafe1014 Vine St
It's called Vine St. Kafe, but its entrance faces Central Parkway, across the street from the giant painted likeness of Jim Tarbell.
The restaurant enjoys an atmosphere not unlike a college dining hall or even a high school or hospital cafeteria. Step inside, grab a plastic tray and head over to one of several food stations, where you can get everything from a hamburger or grilled cheese to fried fish, mac & cheese, a variety of soups, salads and made-to-order sandwiches.
I stopped by one afternoon to enjoy a spicy chicken gumbo and a grilled cheese. The sandwich tasted great, with a taste and crunch one can only get from a flat-top grill. Manners be damned: I gleefully dipped the slices into the delicious bowl of gumbo.
Menu items change daily, so call ahead for specials.
The 'Wich on Sycamore425 Sycamore St
The 'Wich on Sycamore takes over the former New York NY Deli. The first thing you'll notice when stepping inside is the playful, Harry Potter-like mural on the South wall. I enjoyed the nod to witchcraft while noting the irony of the restaurant's proximity to the Procter & Gamble campus, a corporation that changed its logo after enduring years of morons who'd claimed it was steeped in Satanism. You liiiiike Pantene....you liiiiiiike Pantene...
When you step up to the glass counter at The 'Wich on Sycamore, note the number of mouth-watering meats marinating in their own juices. On my visit, the roast beef looked particularly lovely, wisps of hot, blood-red liquid leaking from it's pink, rare core. I got the "Broomstick" sandwich, a daily $4 mini-sandwich special. The roast beef was wonderfully flavorful, but I found the Ciabatta-style bread a little on the chewy side (my jaw actually ached after finishing my lunch).
7th St. Deli120 E. 7th St.
You hear the phrase, "hole-in-the-wall" a lot in the restaurant business, but I've never found a place that quite lives up to that description like 7th St. Deli. You've only got room to walk about two paces when you approach the counter. Be careful when you first open the door: there's a strange mini-step up that is easy to miss and trip over.
7th St. Deli sells breakfast and deli sandwiches, burgers, brats, chicken wings and chili dogs. I found the 99-cent cheese coneys too good a deal to pass up. The coneys are larger than the ones you'd find at Skyline, with juicy, fat beef franks and a deliciously tomatoey, meaty chili sauce. There are generous chunks of hamburger in this chili, which you can also order by the bowl.
Capri Tavola Calda420 Walnut St.
Capri is the kind of place where you can relax, read a paper and enjoy food that successfully harmonizes American tastes with Italian classics.
The owner, Nicola Santagata, was very excited that I had ordered his special panini of the day, the Arista Panino. He explained to me that the method of preparing the pork for this sandwich dates back more than six centuries. The word, "Arista" is derived from Greek, which means "excellent" or "best." It was very aptly named: the Arista Panino is now among my top 5 favorite sandwiches of all time.
The hint of rosemary and the flavors of the white wine, tomatoes, carrots, romaine lettuce and delicate slices of pork really set this sandwich apart. The eight inches of toasted Italian bread had a crispy crust on the outside yielding to a softer inside, which absorbed much of the buttery, meaty juices.
I've been to Capri a total of five times now and each time was a positive experience, although I have noticed inconsistent degrees of quality with regard to the sandwiches, mostly dependent upon what employee is preparing it. For example, on one visit, I got Romaine lettuce on my panini, while on another it came with iceberg lettuce and the top of the bun was slightly scorched.
I enjoy Capri's generous slices of pizza. The varieties seem to change daily and, like those little pizza shops we stumbled upon in Italy, you can choose a slice on display behind the glass, watch them cut a generous wedge and warm it up in the oven until hot and crispy.
Abby Girl Sweets41 W. 5th St
After you've gorged on lunch, treat yourself to a decadent, $2.75 cupcake from Abby Girl Sweets. These cupcakes are wondrous to behold: moist cakes topped with layers of artfully-piped icing.
My tastes in cupcakes are fairly simplistic, with few criteria: make it moist and don't overdo it with the icing. Abby's icing-to-cake ratio is a little on the lopsided end for me, but I can't deny how much I enjoyed their Chocolate Supreme, with its rich chocolate flavor enhanced by a peppering of mini-chocolate chips.
Still, the price of the cupcakes are a little tough to justify. Fortunately, lots of companies can be talked into buying these little gems in bulk, where quantity discounts kick in. So if you're scoffing at the price, encourage your boss or your clients to treat your team to a box from Abby Girl.
Price: Cheap (under $11 per person)