Flavor: Low-frills Southern, some global influences
Ambiance: Comfortable and welcoming
Service: Very friendly but slightly disorganized
The Sunnyside Cafe has a certain unfettered quaintness. The tables and chairs are all mismatched, but not in a “look how funky and rummage-sale hip we are” kind of way. Rather, the furnishings are modest yet attractive, which is somewhat symbolic of the way that the cafe is put together. The decor is warm and inviting, spare but not sparse. The lighting is simple, but it does the trick nicely. There’s no smoke and mirrors at Sunnyside, in the decorative scheme or the menu selections.
Sunnyside has a homespun, small-town feeling, one that fits well with the restaurant’s surroundings: the charming, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown Weaverville. The owners, Chef Robin Parker and front-of-house Manager Manuel Ignacio, often circle the floor, dropping off desserts and chatting with their customers, many of whom are on a first name basis with the two. On one of the days that I visited, one man sat quietly and comfortably at one of the window tables, dining with a newspaper in one hand as though he were at his own kitchen table. After he departed, a young couple took his seat and huddled close over dessert and coffee.
Simplicity, it appears, is one of the major concepts behind the Sunnyside’s fare. As down-to-earth and practical as the chunky, round, glass-topped table we sat at, the menu is comfortable, familiar and unconcerned with trendiness. The food is solidly Southern – not in a nouveau South kind of way, but in a way that my true-blue Southern Grandma would appreciate – even if she might not know what to make of homemade veggie burgers.
At lunch, the menu is peppered with fare like chicken Cobb salad, grilled chicken Caesar salad and Reuben sandwiches. Sweet tea is poured in tall glasses that never run dry. Sunlight filters through the windows and pools on the table tops. A friend and I sat at one of those sunlit tables recently, gossiping like ladies at a luncheon over our selections – a chicken-salad sandwich on wheat for her, a creamy grilled-salmon pasta for me. Her sandwich came with a delicious corn chowder that wasn’t too heavy, and was, by the end of the meal, awarded the title of “best thing on the table.” The chicken salad seemed to have little in the way of supporting players – there was little to dress the shredded meat but mayonnaise and a wee bit of seasoning – and my friend found it wanting in the “chunkiness” department.
My pasta was, for the most part, well-received. Bits of fresh and savory salmon were tossed with angel hair and fresh herbs in a Parmesan cream sauce that was light in flavor, though a bit heavy on the dairy for a truly “light” lunch.
The dinner menu also relies on fairly familiar staples, such as T-bone steak, Chicken Marsala, or aged filet mignon – prepared simply, the menu says, to allow the flavor of the meat to shine. Dinner appetizers are few and familiar: Gorgonzola crepes, crab cakes and spinach-artichoke dip complete the abbreviated pre-dinner list. We sampled the crab cakes and found them to be creamy and packed full of crab and little else. We enjoyed them for their genuine crabbiness, for lack of a better word, but found that they needed some zip of some sort. Perhaps, we began to realize, simplicity was the name of the game.
And so it was with other appetizers. A ham and bean soup was precisely what you might imagine it would be – and very delicious. My friend compared it to a (and this was intended as a compliment) “country-ham smoothie.” A salad was simply and lightly dressed – minimal cheese, minimal seasonings – allowing the flavor of the vegetables to take center stage.
Entrées were equally subtly cloaked. A pork loin was rubbed solely with fresh herbs, olive oil, and salt and pepper. A potato-wrapped tuna steak was topped with a simple sauce of tomatoes, basil and onions. Green vegetables were lightly treated and not overly cooked, though should you desire a man-sized amount of fat, simply order the bacon and double-topped (blue and cheddar cheeses) potatoes for one of your sides.
For dessert we ordered carrot cake, which was one of the finest I’ve come across in a while. It was a tough choice, as three different types of homemade cheesecake also beckoned.
Sunnyside is indeed a appealing place, though it can be clumsy at times: Our bread basket never arrived, the pork loin was initially overcooked (though graciously and expediently replaced with something cooked more to my liking), and the restaurant ran out of anchovies for the Caesar salad. But none of this took much away from the experience. Sometimes down-home charm leaves a warmer feeling than a guy with a crumber who likes to show off his infinitely superior wine knowledge.
At Sunnyside, the chef’s cooking style tends to lean further toward the comforting and basic than the adventurous and outrageous. Hominess, it should be mentioned, should not be confused with cheapness – the prices for Sunnyside’s dinner entrées are comparable to those at many fine-dining restaurants in our area (the prices do include a soup or salad, and lunch remains affordable). I expect that the price point can be explained by a simple but beautiful statement I overheard the chef utter to one of her customers: “Quality,” she said, “is very important.”