The Uptown Erie Café is a statement in simplicity that is alternately charming and disarming. The charming part includes the homely atmosphere and the friendly service. Eight tables make up the dining area with large windows welcoming in passers by. The interior reminds me of countless roadside diners in my native Northeast: kitschy country art decorates the warm yellow walls, and the counter at the center of the room is replete with pastries.
Along one wall of the eatery that recently reopened with new owners are accolades from local publications, framed in ramshackle fashion; Old Glory sits unfurled in the front. Everything exudes no-frills, American-pie goodness. This mood is enhanced by the prompt, casual service.
At noon on a Friday at the café on Briggs Street, we were one of three tables enjoying lunch, with a few more coming in as we finished. We were greeted with waters and a quick glass of iced tea, which was refilled at regular intervals.
Perusing the menu, we noted many café classics, such as a French Dip, Fish and Chips, and the triumphantly-named “Talk of the Town” burger. Tempted by the thought of the burger after hearing raves about the menu’s signature (not to mention the “Devour the Tower in Under an Hour” nine-pounder that’s free if you finish), I opted instead for something unique. So I tried the Erie Cafe’s Raspberry Chipotle Chicken Sandwich ($6.50 with fries, chips or salad). Slathered in a house-made sauce that is equal parts sweetness and fury, the hearty, tender chicken breast sits on a hoagie roll with lettuce and tomato, and is a filling and tasty delight. You might, however, want to ask for an extra napkin.
My ubiquitous vegetarian dining partner, however, was not so lucky. The menu and specials, aside from a salad, offered only one option, a veggie sandwich ($6.75 with the same choice of accoutrements). And this is where the disarming kind of simplicity surfaces: the veggie sandwich is really just that—two pieces of sourdough bread with some vegetables stuffed in. Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, at Cousin Eddie’s barbecue, where he proudly observes, “I don’t know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper, I think it’s just fine by itself”?
It was roughly the same thing here. There was no substantial non-meat centerpiece, such as a Portobello mushroom or some zucchini, so the sandwich made do with what I would consider to be mostly condiment vegetables. The only element that tied it all together was some mayonnaise, and, though the vegetables were fresh, the sandwich was unremarkable. An order of onion rings ($3.25) were similarly generic but came out crispy and piping hot, and don’t miss those amazing chocolate chip cookies (a bargain at 50 cents apiece).
Perhaps some of the above criticisms are too fine, but I offer them in a spirit of encouragement inflected with a warning. There’s nothing wrong with offering fresh, quick food with little complexity, but any restaurateur will tell you that in doing so you must still deal with the branding issue. The chipotle sauce was beguiling and unique, so why settle for anything less with any other dish on the menu? And also don’t underestimate the vegetarian market. It is underserved and growing.
(Editor’s note: Since our review, the café began testing a weekend dinner service that includes a portobello mushroom-based pizza). In sum, you can be innovative and original and still maintain a refreshing level of down-home humility; they are not mutually exclusive traits.
Uptown Erie Cafe
554 Briggs Street, Erie
Bottom line: Tasty, quick and inexpensive breakfast and lunch options with a good-to-see-ya attitude.