Waiting for Good

You may have to cool your heels first, but a meal at Cummel's is worth it

Cummel's Café

1627 Washington Avenue

Minestrone $1.85 (cup), $2.45 (bowl)
Tuna-salad-and-croissant platter $4.45
Chicken and dumplings $4.85
Double-chocolate brownie $1.15

314-231-9627. Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.

Cummel's Café has great food -- if only it were easier to get your hands on some. Re-situated about three months ago into warm and welcoming Washington Avenue digs after losing its lease a couple of years back, when it resided farther east on Washington, Cummel's alleges to serve breakfast and lunch six days a week.

Yet my two recent attempts at procuring breakfast there were both thwarted: One time, we showed up twenty minutes after the posted opening to find nobody there; the second, at approximately 9:45 a.m. on a weekday, the griddles had already gone cold and my only option was a bagel and coffee.

Lunch can also prove challenging.

The single-sheet photocopied menus available at the cash-register end of the counter note only three or four selections, rotated daily, plus barbecue, which is available every day. But the hand-drawn board standing over the opposite, food-procuring end of the counter, whose authority outranks the Xeroxed menus, may say something different; it may include leftovers from yesterday's lunch, or there may be big "86 that" lines scratched through half of the choices, even though it's only 30 minutes past noon.

And then you may spot out of the corner of your eye, say, a tantalizing plate of chicken and dumplings -- which isn't on either menu but was, apparently, something that one very lucky customer somehow got custom-made.

Hang in there. Be patient.

Whatever you wind up ordering -- whether it's something you choose of your own volition or something you're stuck with by default -- you won't be disappointed. The food here is substantial, hearty and well-executed; it may be pushing it to say the food here is made with love, but it's most definitely made with care and pride.

That may sound incongruous, considering that Cummel's is, technically, a cafeteria; you do everything but bus your table at the end of the meal. (Along those lines, many of the menu's phrasings unintentionally mimic the suspiciously innocuous language of junior-high lunches. "Pizza Combo: a slice of pizza with a tossed green salad." Remember how gnarly that shit always was?)

But Cummel's is a small-scale cafeteria, and there's nothing institutional about it. In fact, the food reeks of homemade -- even the four or five salad dressings are homemade, for goodness' sake -- and the equipment behind the counter more suitably belongs in a grandmother's kitchen: single-bowl mixers and Tupperware containers and all that. Coupled with Cummel's cozy orange tones, secondhand-chic tables and chairs and locally produced art on the walls, this may be the homiest, most laid-back and inviting eatery in all of downtown.

Each day's menu contains (or aims to contain) a sandwich, a soup or stew, something in the upscale-eclectic vein (asparagus-Swiss quiche, grilled Parmesan turkey burgers), something from the barbecue pit out back and a dessert. Again, everything -- everything -- is good here. The minestrone, just for starters, does not mess around. There's none of that watery-broth bull; it's tantamount to a stew, with a thick saucelike broth and generous amounts of pasta, potatoes and vegetables.

The sandwiches are constructed as variations on a theme: sliced meat (turkey, ham, pastrami) or meat-and-mayo (tuna salad, chicken salad), paired with cheese (cheddar or Swiss) and served on your choice of bread (rye, white, wheat -- but they rightly push the croissant, cholesterol be damned). The tuna-salad sandwich is perfect -- light and fresh, just the right amount of mayonnaise (enough that the salad is white, not so much that the salad is runny) and complemented with a couple of sunny slices of lettuce and tomato. It's the kind of tuna-salad sandwich that will put a little smile on your face for the rest of the day, even if you can't quite pinpoint why you're smiling.

The other items in the sandwich repertoire shake off their pedestrian, deli-staple shackles thanks to some much-appreciated and quite unexpected dashes of spice. The turkey-and-cheddar is given a kick of mesquite flavor; the chicken salad is whipped up with a pinch of curry. Both are culinary gambles that pay off.

The barbecue -- really, it's barbecue and soul food, because we're also talking catfish, corn on the cob and so on -- comes courtesy of the pit out back. I could rhapsodize about the pork steak till I was silly, except I'd feel bad doing so because it's not technically on the menu and therefore unpredictable with regard to when it'll next appear. But it's twenty times more tender than what you're expecting, yet another sign of the time and patience Cummel's invests in its food. Additional proof that the meat's been doing leisurely duty in the pit: The sauce is burned into the pork steak's crusty exoskeleton, not just sitting lazily atop it. (If lots of lead time is what it takes to produce such great barbecue, I have no problem whatsoever being told at 9:45 a.m., "We're deep into lunch now.")

Even the side items are given proper respect. The fruit, one side option, comes out so fresh and plentiful that you almost feel bad getting it at no additional cost. There's also a unique and memorable "nutty pasta" salad: pesto-tinted spaghetti mixed with black olives, tufts of broccoli, slices of cherry tomatoes and a liberal sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

You cannot leave Cummel's without having dessert. In fact, you should visit Cummel's during the post-breakfast, pre-lunch lull specifically because the only thing available then for you to eat will be the desserts, and so -- oops! -- you haven't any choice, have you? The carrot cake takes moist to a whole new level: I swear you can hear the thing squish when you cut into it. And the chocolate-chip cookies -- given out free with lunch on Fridays! -- are gooey and ever-so-slightly underbaked (which is actually the one trick I remember my high-school cafeteria getting right, serving up the chocolate-chip cookies while they were still a notch or two under "done").

But the magnum opus of the dessert menu is the double-chocolate brownie, an exquisite triple play of brownie topped with chocolate frosting, with chocolate chips mixed into both. The chips give the brownie texture, something you don't usually get in a brownie, and the frosting gives it, well, more chocolate, and what's the problem there?

Just one thing if (when!) you do go to Cummel's: If you get your hands on the damn chicken and dumplings, I want to hear all about it.

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