Sunday, June 29, 2008

It's a Cafe! And a Bar! (Cafe Bar, 32-90 36th Street)

Cafe Bar was one of the handful of establishments that prompted Time Out to proclaim Astoria "The New Bohemia" on its cover in 2000. Regardless of the truth of that statement, the consciously quirky Cafe Bar back then was a sort of outpost for the young hipsters who were said to be slowly populating the area.

When we first went there, around the same time as that cover story, we felt like we were missing something. Sure, the Mona Lisa rice curtain and retro couches spoke to us more than the surly, nicotine-heavy outdoor tables at, say, Athens Cafe -- but the menu wasn't much different. It was Euro-style cafe fare: Greek salads, light sandwiches graced with feta, and frappes. Maybe the odd nutella crepe as well. But we were willing to chalk it up to us, not them -- surely we'd just overlooked a page of the menu.

Now that Astoria has a handful of places that could prompt another Time Out cover story (yet again touting Astoria's arrival on the desirable neighborhood list), it's clear that Cafe Bar was never quite lived up to what the boosters were so eager to claim for it. Once you have absorbed the "zany" rummage-sale decor, there's just not a whole lot, menu-wise, to set it apart from any other Greek or Cypriot cafe in the neighborhood, though the fresh-juice bar is a nice variant from the long coffee lists at those other establishments. The vibe is indeed funky in its own way, with 1960s-style chandeliers, pop wall decor, and a one-of-a-kind Salinger-themed bathroom (this alone makes it worth one visit). But any college town in America has a place with this feel: the objets d'art carefully selected to feel whimsically random, the DJ nights, the friendly but not particularly efficient waitstaff. Salads, sandwiches, crepes -- all well-priced, all fitting our nutritional needs, all tasty enough to make us clean our plates. But Astoria has many places that go above and beyond the basics of just-fine food preparation.

Reviewers on other sites claim to feel "at home" at Cafe Bar. But it's hard for us to feel at home amid such forced quirkiness. We feel as though we're at the apartment of a twentysomething struggling to find her identity, sitting among a bizarre array of hard plastic chairs and overstuffed couches. (It should be noted, too, that we're not a fan of dining on couches. You're so sunken that you can't talk to anyone other than who is beside you on the couch; you have to keep leaning over to pick up your drink or food -- essentially, you're more uncomfortable than you would be at a plain old table with chairs. So what then is the point?)

We understand Cafe Bar's appeal. It's more or less fairly priced, the food is fine, it doesn't have a problem with patrons nursing a drink on one of those infernal couches. In these respects, it's a quintessential cafe, and maybe that's what makes it problematic for us. Cafe culture isn't eating culture: It's for people who wish to see and be seen. We appreciate that this can foster a sense of community, and perhaps the perpetually arriving new bohemians of Astoria have found their home at Cafe Bar. (It serves as a pickup spot for the Astoria CSA, so that's fully possible.) Maybe we're just not "new" enough, or bohemian enough, to gel with the Cafe Bar vibe -- but we suspect that those who are hoping to find something truly bohemian here will be disappointed.

Price: Fine. Not crazy like some of the other tavernas.
Will we go again? We'd prefer a cafe or a bar to this Cafe Bar.

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