Cafe Septieme214 Broadway E, 860-8858
Open 9 am-12 mid, seven days a week
THOSE WHO ARE EITHER INEPT OR too lazy to cook at home must be willing to tolerate the exorbitant cost of eating out--and that's only the beginning of a long and deeply personal exercise in balancing a complicated set of values. It's wholly true that one man's meat is the next man's poison, but that may be the only universal axiom that applies to restaurants. The other particulars of dining out vary so wildly that it is next to impossible to recommend something for everyone. For my friend Kathleen, a restaurant's clientele overshadows warm decor, charitable service, and expense. Dee will flee from a joint that is less clean than her own immaculate kitchen. My own sister proclaims that she is "too through" with restaurants that require eating food with sticks.
Yet for each there are exceptions to these rules. Kathleen makes an annual trip to dine with the terminal yupoisie of Cutter's. Given enough tequila Dee will stand shin-deep in scavenging pigeons and used greasy napkins for a Dick's Deluxe (with two orders of fries and a side of tartar). My sister dreams of the day when she will win the lottery and have enough money to travel to China "for the realest moo goo gai pan possible."
Any person's list of their 10 favorite eateries is bound to include one joint that defies easy explication. For years there was an old-timer neighborhood joint on Broadway that had the smokiest atmosphere this side of Gary, Indiana, along with high-haired, grimacing waitresses, but nothing on the menu was priced over $7.50 (and it wasn't the old Ernie Steele's, which was toity and saditty by comparison). I don't remember the name, but I remember that in spite of its shortcomings, the place was defiantly comfortable. It was greasy, but simply so, and pleasantly unencumbered by the rigors of decorum and fussiness that ruled the day in every other Capitol Hill restaurant. It was eventually replaced by Cafe Septieme, which, while different in every possible way from the greasy fork it replaced, is also an acquired taste.
I don't think I've ever argued the merits of any restaurant as vigorously as I have those of Septieme. Folks either love the place (as I do) or despise it. Those who hate it complain about its aspirations; I shared a drink there with a friend who found it "exclusionary and wasteful" (he hates those paper coverings used to protect the tablecloth from Côte du Rhone stains). Others have told me they find the waitstaff unfriendly and condescending. But I have rarely heard Septieme's detractors complain about the food, which they describe as adequate-to-good, but wildly inconsistent. Septieme serves a dependable steak, and is the only Capitol Hill restaurant that does so (besides Bistro Lautrec). The morning biscuits are as good as they've ever been, when they're not maddeningly cold. Its lunchtime Puttenesca tastes richly whorish, reminiscent of its namesake. The evening menu's fall pasta is a standout, as is the blackened catfish with its glorious garlic mashed sweet potatoes. Cafe Septieme has a new baker, Rachel Lawson, and if last week's fresh pineapple pie is any sign of what's to come, then the bold attitude is gonna continue to pay off in spades.
Regarding the accusation that the service tends toward the gruff: although I've never experienced bad service there, as a cafe, Septieme has an undeniable attitude--or, if you please, a strong personality. Much more than regular restaurants, cafes are inherently separated from other dining houses by these... personalities. Getting comfortable with a cafe is a lot like getting comfortable with a new friend. There's a courtship period, a time when the parties familiarize themselves with one another's strengths and idiosyncrasies. Anthropomorphically speaking, a cafe is as free to dislike you as you are it, and it can evidence this dislike without resorting to bad service or shitty food. That not everyone likes or "gets" a cafe lends credence to its authenticity. But if it likes you....
I readily admit that my relationship with Septieme goes back a ways, back to the time when it was a Belltown institution. The Cafe and I were introduced by a mutual friend. She extolled the virtues of their excellent spinach baked eggs and incredible biscuits. A week ago and a decade after that introduction, I ran into my friend. She has since moved to N.Y., and then L.A., but whenever she breezes through town she heads straight to Septieme. It's a reunion of friends. Naturally there were deletions (no more baked eggs) and more than a few additions (the full bar, the change in location), but the experience was the same. Septieme can be intimate and volatile, thrifty and exorbitant, fussy, doting, and lonely, sometimes wandering among extremes in a single meal. I've eaten there plenty and never had a bad meal, but some meals were disappointing. But in this respect Septieme is as consistent and pleasing (and always as comfortable) as a meal at my home, or at the homes of any of my bestest friends.