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Café Society: York Street Café

Terry and Betsy Cunningham have created a quirky, comfortable old friend of a restaurant.

Five blocks from the Newport riverfront, York Street Café sits on a quiet, leafy corner. A rambling four-storied establishment built in the Queen Anne style and packed with charm and eccentricity galore, it has stood on this corner for more than 130 years. For the past 15 years, the building has housed the café owned and operated by Terry and Betsy Cunningham, but the Newport chapter of The Fraternal Order of Eagles also nested here, and a neighborhood apothecary is responsible for the 19th century floor-to-ceiling shelves and cubbies that line the first floor of the main dining room.

The café was a regular stop of mine for years in the late 1990s and into the ’00s, a place whose dependable menu and quirky atmosphere appealed to a broad range of diners, from non-adventurous visiting relatives to non-attentive children, with an occasional cozy dinner date on the charming patio that continued with cocktails and live music upstairs. Though years have passed with only a brief visit, I’ve always appreciated the presence of York Street, always felt a half-smile find my face as I drove past it. The nostalgia is due somewhat to the Cunninghams, with whom I have crossed paths for years as part of the incestuous local restaurant and bar community. It’s a rare day that one of them is not on duty, more often than not as host, which in turn has created the sort of comfortable, welcoming environment that encourages steady customers and low turnover in employees (many customers are on a first-name basis with the service staff, some of whom have been there for more than 10 years). In a mad world where quantity is often peddled as quality and a sense of place often overlooked, I cannot overstate the value of an establishment like York Street. One evening while zooming past on my way to somewhere else, I realized I missed it, and resolved to make time for a visit to my old friend.   

I count 11 pieces in the big band that’s playing on the second floor. This space has long been a nightclub of sorts, meaning that in addition to its handsome bar, a small stage sits at one end of the room. Tonight, horns and woodwinds and percussion—plus two vocalists—cruise through a selection of American songbook, jazz, and be-bop standards. On the dance floor, couples try on mild-mannered versions of swing-style dancing.

As in most clubs, bar stools are predominantly occupied by solo patrons, here a row of silver-maned manthers on the hunt for another dance or more. Within the 10 minutes I’ve been taking in the scene, three of them—one after another in swift succession—grab my elbow and try to lead me onto the dance floor. Their average age is 70. They are cologne-soaked. They know their way around a tanning bed. And they are kind when rebuffed. But now the band is Thank you and good night; the bartender, Drink up people. It’s not quite 11 p.m. This is just one way to roll at York Street.

The other way, and the most common, occurred 20 minutes ago, on the first floor. We were seated on the patio—one of the most enchanting outdoor dining spaces in the city. A nicely grilled salmon—ginger and sage rubbed and crowned with a fruity salsa—had been consumed. So too had a decent burger cooked to medium-rare as requested and a side salad with housemade Gorgonzola dressing. We had lingered over a chocolate hazelnut torte of the flourless kind, bittersweet, rich and moist.

Desserts have always been one of the stars of York Street’s menu, primarily thanks to the café’s former pastry queen Annabel Stolley. Though Stolley moved on five years ago to open a breakfast and lunch café (the very popular Annabel’s, on Mt. Lookout Square), her sweet legacy continues. In addition to the chocolate flourless torte, a butter rum pecan cake—a modest looking Bundt cake that would be equally at home on a picnic table or a finely dressed Michelin-starred table—is featured, as are variations of a white chocolate buttermilk layer cake. Those, along with additional selections, are made by Amy Carter, who’s both the dessert chef and the day chef (the evening menu is overseen by chef Curtis Paul Kutschenreuter).

My slice of flourless torte has been served with a birthday candle by Terry Cunningham. Terry has been an owner, or part owner, of several well-known establishments including Chapter XIII (a nightlife fixture at the corner of Pavilion and St. Gregory during the 1970s and ’80s), and the Howl at the Moon Saloon franchise. Betsy, who also goes by BB Hall, is a highly regarded artist whose work graced the walls of Arboreta, the Over-the-Rhine restaurant that I helped build and operate in the ’90s.

Betsy is also the creative energy behind one of the things York Street Café is most often noted for: the large collection of kitschy collectibles that dwell on every available shelf, ledge, wall, console, and sideboard. Postcards, advertisements, and 1940s cloths top the dining tables. Extensive collections of metal lunchboxes, Pez dispensers, Elvis memorabilia, bull terrier novelties (after the Cunningham family dogs Lucy and Charlie), troll dolls, dentures, and antique toys line the gorgeous walnut shelves.  There’s so much stuff that some of it spills into the neighboring retail store, along with Betsy’s vibrant, whimsical paintings.

Neither is the ivy-covered, lamp-lit patio exempt, which makes dining among the wrought iron, vintage advertising, and pots of flowers particularly pleasant, even when some of the food is less than.

York Street’s menu is largely a seasonal one with a wide range of dishes that mimic the physical restaurant’s groovy comfort. Chefs have come and gone over the years, and rather than reinvent the menu each time, the Cunninghams have relied on a roster of staples that have a fan base, and that an incoming chef can execute, and sometimes tweak, while flexing his chops on daily and seasonal features. Of these, I am a fan of the garlicky hummus and smoky baba ghanoush, which can be ordered individually as appetizers or as part of the larger Mediterranean Board—one of the café’s popular “conversation boards”—along with tabbouleh, spanakopita, and Greek salad; the chicken and cherry salad (grilled chicken, dried cherries, red onion, feta, and toasted sunflower seeds with vinaigrette); Greek penne pasta (olives, sun dried tomatoes, spinach, garlic, and feta); and the filet with garlic mashed potatoes. Sure, they’re 1980s throwbacks, but they’re consistently good.

What’s not consistent is the fresh catch (more often than not cod), which came out one evening submerged under a lake of beurre blanc and dissolved to the texture of baby food. There was no longer any evidence of the advertised spinach and artichoke crust. The Southwestern pork tenderloin was neither tender nor Southwestern. It was merely crusted with whole spices that created a hostile environment on the palate, forcing  the four of us to push it aside.

But York Street is one of those rare restaurants where food does not have to be the keynote of your experience. The presentation won’t have you pulling out your camera phones; there are no culinary aerobatics that will have you texting your BFF a string of exclamation points. That’s not the point. Old friends become old friends because they’re safe and comfortable and welcoming, and that’s what York Street Café is—one of our oldest friends. 

York Street Café, 738 York St., Newport, (859) 261-9675, yorkstonline.com

Atmosphere
Funky, friendly, artsy café and nightclub with something-for-everyone food and entertainment menus.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue.