I expected to find one of two extremes at Café on the Park since it's just 2 months old — either a small sampling menu or the over-reaching net to satisfy all diners.
Instead, the menu is focused on making the simple sandwich great with smart pairings, advertising it's "so good, ya pickle smiles." The Coolidge Park restaurant adds a much-needed lighter, dine-in option after finishing an afternoon window-shopping in the North Shore or playing in the park's fountains.
Café on the Park is located at the base of the walking bridge, just beside Burlap & Board antiques, with a view of Walker Pavilion. Although "beside" might be generous; the café sits in the middle of Burlap's greater U-shape, acting more like a roommate than a neighbor.
› Where: Café on the Park, 191 River St.
› Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
› Prices: $3.50 for bowl of soup to $9.75 sandwiches
› Alcohol: No
› Phone: 423-803-6852
› Online: smilingpickle.com
The café's space is humble, with about six tables inside and additional seating outside. The decor echos other sandwich shops, fitted in red-and-black with metal tables and chairs. I ordered food to-go in late afternoon and could find seating easily after walking through Burlap, dreaming of mid-century pieces I could place in rooms I don't have.
As a loyal vegetarian, I ordered the Portabella Mushroom Panini and the Vegan De Light to go. I split the options with my partner. The panini is a classic taste for any vegetarian looking for something more substantial, with mushroom, Swiss cheese, spinach, avocado, onion, tomato and house dressing. There's nothing quite so satisfying as pulling apart the portabella panini and seeing how far the Swiss will stretch before it breaks.
The Vegan De Light is lighter, with roasted red peppers, hummus, avocado and feta on multigrain bread. I preferred the Vegan De Light, although both were delicious. The vegan "sammich" — the café's preferred version of spelling sandwich — was more suited for the hot day with its cool spread and light, salty accents from the feta.
The food transports well, too. I'm in the bad habit of work-eating, where I have to multitask during any meal. But I found this perfect for future food excursions where, hopefully, I'll be dining in the park rather than parked on my couch with a to-do list next to me.
Other options for diners include classics, like the Reuben, to more adventurous eats, like the Meaty Deluxe — turkey, pork loin, ham, bacon, pepper jack cheese, onion, pickle and spicy mustard. There's also a build-your-own option and soup and salads for those wanting to go carb-free.
The staff is small and, while I was there, only one person waited on me while working to bus tables, mind the register and make the food. I expected a longer wait considering, but was happily surprised when my order was done in 10 minutes.
The space, while small, doesn't lend itself to chatty conversation with staff assembling food along a long bar behind the counter. Yet, when I asked questions, our server was quick to answer.
Diners looking for a quick and easy bite will enjoy Café on the Park for the same reason I did — it's not trying to be anything but a local sandwich shop. No promise of quick delivery nor big fanfare, the small shop aims to get to your heart through your stomach and succeeds with good, quality food.
With other local shops like Mindy B's and the Flatiron Deli downtown, I'll be excited to see how traffic from the North Shore and Coolidge Park impact the menu in months to come.
Contact Cameron Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.