Boston: Cafeteria

Let's Eat by Kitty Kaufman, photos by Meg Glenn & Dilusha DeTissera

cafeteria Cuban We're downstairs at Cafeteria on Newbury Street. The ceilings are low and the volume is high. If we hadn't made a reservation, we'd be making ourselves scarce for 45 minutes and it's already two o'clock. I don't envy the host at all but she smiles. It's possible we're the only ones not nursing a hangover yet our colleagues manage to set an impressively high beauty standard for Saturday afternoon.

Today we're inside but Cafeteria has a patio. It occurs to me that all the reservations in the world would not get us one of those tables. Still. Right now, Meg is very hungry after ballet and orders a Cuban. I want that burger you read about in reviews. Our server is Tom and I think he's from New York but he's from New Jersey, close enough, and goes to Northeastern. He cannot do enough for us though we're neither drinking nor hungover.

cafeteria burger That burger is exceptional. Hold everything that burgers now show up with: cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, sauce, bacon, avocado, black beans and eggs. When did this start exactly, eggs everywhere? I want to know who is responsible? (I should be raising free-ranging poultry in Vermont.) Tom says the chef grinds table steak and that's exactly how good it is. Sauce goes great on fries, sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan, that are worth penance. Hope no one on Longwood Avenue reads this.

The Cuban is packed with lots of ham, roast pork, pickles and creamy Swiss all pressed into submission on buttery toast. We think you could press anything on buttery toast and be happy. Like bacon. I once wrote that you could put bacon on cardboard with mayo and it would make a fine sandwich. Anyway, Cubans vary but we've never had one that's not, in its own way, good. This one could be great, Meg says, with more pickles and mustard; I agree.

cafeteria calamari It's two months later and we're back celebrating Dilusha's new job. We always celebrate new jobs. We celebrate old jobs, birthdays of significance and not, dubious holidays, non-holidays and an empty table outside. We're happy upstairs and the bar's attractive. (If you don't navigate steps, you won't be able to eat inside; there's no entry at street level.) I tell Dilusha about this real estate's former life. It was sushi in the eighties and nineties (not my 90's). One day I came for lunch and sat at the bar. The chef knew me and handed over a piece of what he was cutting for someone else. It was giant clam. I took it, of course, and in my chopsticks it continued moving. Yes, I did, it would have been rude not to.

Fried calamari appetizer could be a meal. It comes in a tin bucket, so much better than a plate. Not one but two sauces: tomato, by way of Rhode Island, and white sauce, peppery with lemon. It must be secret since I ask our server and she says she'll find out what it is but if she did, she isn't telling. I hope no one on Longwood Avenue sees this either.

another cafeteria burger Greek salad: tomato, cucumber, onion, Kalamatas and feta with oregano vinaigrette and the option to add, among other things, salmon. It looks terrific and the salmon is a bit salty. In no time our server whisks it away and is back with a fresh piece that's fine. The purist sticks with hamburger, this time with salad. Though being American in America grants me permission for fries, I am taking what I think is the high road.

cafeteria salmon Executive chef Antonio Perez keeps the same menu all day: salads, a nice variety of pizzas, and sandwiches that include BLT, meatloaf, tuna, grilled cheese, pastrami and a lobster roll. You can also have meatloaf, steak, salmon, scallops, short ribs, pasta and weekend brunch. It's contemporary American and it's comfortable. Specials: quesadillas, eggplant, pulled pork, brisket and fish, depending on the day, and late food weekends. Oh, and fried ice cream wrapped in a tortilla with caramel and cinnamon.

On the website, listen to Hugh Masekela's 2001 Grazing in the Grass; I'm not sure why. "About us" says nothing about who's in charge. I turn to the bible, LinkedIn, and there I find owner George Aboujaoude. He's also behind Committee on Fan Pier and Bijou, a club on Stuart Street. Bijou opens at 10:30 and wraps at 2 am. I'm letting George know now that he can be sure he won't be running into us though I know it's fun. Finally, I find the Cafeteria reference: drinks right out of high school. Well, not my high school. There's a gin timeout, not for kids cherry coke, field trip Cachaça, English class Pimm's, Cognac principal, lunch lady vodka, detention rum, bee student bourbon and spring break tequila.

Cafeteria has an international and occasionally well-known crowd. Two summers ago, I was walking down Newbury to find the patio in full swing on a 90-degree Saturday. There was commotion around the host stand and I look and there is Adam Sandler. On the way back, I retrace my steps to see if he is still there. He is still there, at a table on the patio, of course, with two others. I can't see what they're eating. He is just right there. No one is bothering him and I wonder if he minds. He sits facing the street looking. I look and he looks too. I wonder if he remembers.

Cafeteria Boston
279a Newbury St
Boston, MA 02116
617. 536. 2233

© May 11, 2015 Photos by Dilusha DeTissera and Meg Glenn. Kitty Kaufman is a Boston writer. See more of their food adventures at Corporate Edge and on Twitter
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