I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
Cafe Voltaire is the only location I’ve reviewed (and probably will ever review) that’s located within another establishment. How long before I start critiquing hot dog stands and deli counters in big box retailers? I mean they make their own food…some of the time. I made an exception for Voltaire based on very specific factors. The first is the claim that Voltaire not only makes their food on site, but made to order as well. So does Subway, where I used to commonly ask for so much ground black pepper, it would resemble dirt (“I want to be able to plant seeds in my pepper and have it grow”). Voltaire also has more seats than most locations I’ve covered. But be sure that this may be the only example of this format, so unless someone can offer an argument to include another similar location, I will call Voltaire a unique situation.
Voltaire is nestled within Books & Company on 3rd Avenue, a popular hip—borderline elitist—establishment with an internet hot spot, shelves of discount books, and an unused piano which I’ve heard is heard from time to time. Voltaire has entertained writers and musicians—the kind of location Ginsberg would have frequented if he was alive…and it was 1965…and this was San Francisco. What I’m saying is that I’ve no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t feel out of place typing away at my netbook, I will say that.
While the owner was being sold a CIBC business account on a nearby table, I went about ordering a combination meal. I started with the soup, and the chipotle chicken immediately caught my attention. I followed up with one of their famous build-your-own-sandwiches. These are not the variety “scooped” out and filled, but traditional sandwiches where you can select the bread, the filling, the spread, and even a side pickle. The soup is offered flanking a wedge of focaccia bread. The soup is damn good and damned spicy, both high praise. It absolutely feels freshly made. The chunks of tomato and carrot are irregular. The chicken tastes like chicken.
Moving onto the sandwich, I was surprised at the effort put into it. Yes, admittedly, it does use pre-sliced, pre-packaged ingredients, but they are not layered spartanly. Three layers of turkey, two layers of cheese (sliced, but not processed). The speed of the delivery was admirable; Voltaire easily takes the top spot for reliably good food at a speedy pace for those requiring lunch away from one of the many business establishments peppered like a minefield around this town. It easily wins out over the depressing Margo’s Cafe a few blocks down. As said, the problem with reviewing cafes is the lack of anything substantial beyond simple lunches. When you sit down, there are few surprises. As many readers will recall, these lunch-time reviews serve as only the precursor to a more detailed supper phase to follow. Cafes are automatically removed from that stage. Why? Because there’s nothing new to discover. They rarely change between services. People stop in, order their food from a counter, then await its delivery. It’s not like tablecloths go down, table settings change, and everyone changes into suits after 5:00. I’ve seen restaurants that actually DO that.
When reviewing a café, there’s a certain echelon they’re capable of reaching, which is lower than the level a full restaurant can achieve. No matter how good a cafe is, a full service restaurant can go further. So you can believe it depressing when a cafe stands out as being better than so many of the restaurants I’ve been to in the past eighteen or so months. Yes, you’ll have better food going to White Goose, North 54, or Cimos. You have to expect that, but comparing it to Golden Place next door, Voltaire becomes as sacrosanct as the Ark of the Covenant. It’s like rating the sexual charisma of best-selling novelists. Neil Gaiman is not that attractive, but compare him to the likes of Stephan King, Clive Barker, or Harlan Ellison, and he becomes Clooney. Next to Gaiman, other authors are the nerdy outcasts of a PAX convention. This is why Voltaire deserves praise, though conditioned that, although not as good as many restaurants, stands way above many of the places you could go. Given the mediocre coffee-stops and greasy-spoons sprouting like liver spots in this geriatric city, Voltaire remains that one shrivel of hope that this town may still be attractive to people under the age of fifty.