Calling your restaurant Cafeteria is a bit like putting a "kick me" sign on your own back. Why name an eatery after the site of many people's worst culinary memories? Unless your food is very, very good - or you have a gimmick involving trays and a line, or you're serving cheeky twists on comfort food - you're pretty much asking for it. It's only a matter of time until the comparisons to high school lunch rooms and college dining halls begin.
Cafeteria Boston, on Newbury Street, has no trays, no line, no riffs on meat loaf or mac and cheese. The stated concept here is "Mediterranean cafe"; aside from four letters, it's hard to see what that has to do with cafeterias. (Of course, it's also hard to see what that has to do with some of the dishes on the menu, such as Kobe burgers and butternut squash bisque.) And, alas, the food is merely adequate.
The bread, well on its way to stale and with a strange defrosted taste, is reminiscent of the slices I remember from the high school PB&J bar, where whole wheat and white came in long paper sleeves, becoming progressively harder the closer you got to the bottom. The tomatoes in a caprese salad recall those that sat rigid atop college salads, pale, crunchy pink with white spots at the center. (What's the point of caprese salad without good tomatoes?) The butternut squash bisque is thick and sweet and tastes like pie filling. The Boston Globe cafeteria does better.
But one thing the restaurant has over an actual cafeteria is a liquor license, which means drinks like the Cafeteria Bowl. A giant pink cocktail the size of one's head, it's shared scorpion bowl style. What's in the mix? Raspberry, blueberry, and citrus vodkas, Myers's rum, juice, and Rockstar Energy Drink. The end result tastes like liquid Pop Rocks: a candy cocktail designed with one purpose. "It's really strong," the waitress warns us one night. "The bartender forgot to put juice in it until the alcohol was up to here." She points to a spot near the lip of the glass.
The drink exemplifies Cafeteria's spirit. It aims for fun and style; whether it tastes good seems a secondary concern.
This emphasis on style is hereditary. Cafeteria is the offspring of the now defunct Armani Cafe. Several staff members opened the new place in December, and it appears some of the Armani denizens have followed them. On a Friday night around 10, they begin to arrive, a young, polyglot gang in sharp shoes. But Cafeteria is less rigorous in its fashion enforcement. Patrons are welcomed with real warmth regardless of their outfits; the servers are sweethearts, even if they're still learning. ("Gruner what? Um, can you point to the wine list and show me?")
Of course, at Cafeteria it's currently the off season. On some nights, the garden-level main room - an aseptic affair in white and brown with groovy cork upholstery - is nearly empty, the upstairs level closed because "it's not busy enough," we're told. When the weather warms and the patio opens, pretty people with gelled hair and oversize designer sunglasses will be sitting outside sipping Cafeteria Bowls, a scene that has its charms. Like Armani Cafe before it, for people-watchers and people-watchees, this will be a destination.
So it's worth mentioning that some of Cafeteria's entrees are a far cry from mystery meat. The Kobe burger is a fine specimen, topped with cheddar and caramelized onions and hitting the right burger notes. The Bolognese sauce served with tagliatelle is flavorful and authentically un-tomato-y, if less rich than you might wish. Beef tenderloin is cooked as ordered, topped with gorgonzola and served with spinach as a fat-cutting antidote.
Shrimp scampi is also tasty, the shrimp just a shade past done, the al dente noodles lent freshness and zing from arugula, basil, lemon, and tomato. But the house spaghetti (tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, and arugula - sounds hard to muff up) makes al dente seem overcooked, practically crunching when you bite into the strands. Lobster ravioli are more cardboard than crustacean. Pan-roasted sea bass and crab cakes taste fishy. You can smell the crab cakes coming from several feet away, and not in a good way.
Margherita pizza is admirably thin-crusted but tastes like it could have come out of a box. An eggplant napoleon is perhaps the epitome of cafeteria food: heavy, dark brown slices of breading with just a hint of eggplant flavor. A giant serving of veal Milanese, blanketing the plate, suffers from similar problems. And it takes more than a few bites of the zabaglione and the lemon panna cotta, delivered to the wrong diners, to figure out which is which.
Cafeteria isn't prime dining. It's prime real estate. Its location may be stellar enough that its food doesn't have to be. On the one hand, the restaurant INQ, which was not known for its cuisine, failed before Cafeteria in the same spot. On the other, Armani Cafe managed a good long run with the formula (though its food, at least at one point, was significantly better). But then everyone loves a designer label. We'll see come summer whether they buy the knockoff.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.