This past weekend was a rather busy one in a productive kind of way. I had agreed to bake cookies for my catering partner’s high school class reunion. Forgetting exactly how much effort is involved in baking a bulk, I spent all Friday night almost until sunrise Saturday and all day and night Saturday baking — ten dozen peanut butter cookies, ten dozen butter cookies, ten dozen macadamia white chocolate cookies, ten dozen oatmeal cranberry cookies, and ten dozen bittersweet chocolate chip coconut cookies. Sigh. Needless to say, I was like one of those medical interns who had finished medical school and had to pull a 36-hour shift. Add to that me entertaining guests who were visiting from out-of-state. I was reminded this past weekend that the body has an aggressive way of shutting down after sleep deprivation. But there was a necessary reward before my physiology started turning off the motor.
After dropping off the cookies at the reunion picnic, I had a little time to myself before going to collect my friends from their individual outing sans me. Not too far from where the drop-off point was for the reunion is a small stretch of shops and boutique restaurants in the Oak Park, Illinois, neighbourhood. Along Harrison Street, there is a quaint block of some of the most inviting establishments. Earlier this year, a past co-worker and I had gone into this East European coffee-house after we’d had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Eastgate Cafe, owned by a couple, at 102 Harrison Street is a magnet with appeal. The atmosphere was one akin to going into someone’s home and mostly because it was an apartment that had been converted into a coffee-house. Not only is the ambience welcoming, but also the disposition of the owners who interact with you as though they have known you for a great number of years. If I had to give an essence statement, I would say that the whole experience is like going to one of your favourite family member’s home.
Upon entry, the husband, who is Irish, said very casually, “I sense that you want an iced coffee.” With the heat and humidity playing in concert, an iced coffee was a great option. I responded that, yes, I would like an ice coffee and a sandwich along the seafood line. And so there was tuna salad on Italian bread with crisp lettuce, red delicious tomato, and a slightly spicy mayonnaise. Served with a potato salad that I will say is the best that I have had since I had last eaten any prepared by Ma Williams, I was a pleased man. Now, people will always say that no one prepares [fill in the blank] as good as their mothers, and I am one to convince myself of that same statement. However, the potato salad was mustard potato salad rather than mayonnaise potato salad. There is a bit of an accent added when mustard is used. And when there are not so many raw vegetable added in excess because the recipe lists them, there is no crunch factor to entertain while eating the dish. This was the case at Eastgate Cafe. Having taken a seat outside so that I could photograph the delights in natural light, the husband had stepped outside for a moment and inquired as to whether I was enjoying the tuna salad and potato salad, and if I wanted to have my photo taken. Oh, but I am too modest to be on the other end of the camera being caught with my mouth stuffed and eyes rolling around in my head.
The waitress who had brought my order to the table, had mentioned that there was live music on Friday nights and she also spoke of several dishes that Eastgate Cafe has on the menu. So not only is the cafe just one for coffee, desserts, and small dishes, but they also have substantial dishes. The wife, the other owner, is Serbian and introduces a bit of the old country into the experience. Aside from one other past co-worker and her twin sister, I have not had any exposure to Serbians in the metropolitan Chicago area. So finding Eastgate Cafe with some Serbian influence in it was perfect. And one dish that was not specifically Serbian, but a creation of the wife, was introduced to me and since I had a bit of room, I welcomed the recommendation. I had a Quiche that was made with feta cheese, roasted red peppers, and was light on spinach. Served with it were two small potato pancakes and a cup of fruit, consisting of watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew melon, pineapples, and grapes. When establishments say they are serving fresh fruit, they need to take a cue from Eastgate Cafe where the fruit is not only fresh, but it is also ripe enough that it does not crunch like celery. The potato pancakes, although not accommodated with a dollop of sour cream, were absolutely worthy. Where Eastgate Cafe really shines is with the Quiche. The feta cheese made the Quiche light and fluffy, not the usual dense Quiche you get when made with other cheeses. From looking at it, you could easily mistake it for a slice of homemade cheesecake. The Serbian owner had said that the Quiche was her creation, not a dish customary to Serbia. I loved her remark that people create with writing, painting, fine arts, and photography, as she pointed at my camera. She loves to create and express herself through food. That was the most enriching and enlightening commentary I have heard about food and it spoke highly of a passion she has. Outside of America, food is a reflection of culture, beliefs, customs, and community. The wife had captured that perfectly. It also explains why the cafe has such a draw.
Before I left, the owners extended an invitation for a return to listen to some live music on Friday nights. There was no smug thank you for coming. There was no rushed antics to check on other customers. On request, I showed the photos that I had taken and we talked about the feel of Oak Park. When I had mentioned my past co-worker, the Serbian owner told me to bring her so that she could meet someone from “back home.” There is usually a sentiment, as an African-American or Black for those of us who fall in the Caribbean or African bailiwick that we are watched or discounted when we go to certain establishments. That is true and a hurtful thing that occurs more often than not. But there are countless moments like my visit to Eastgate Cafe where great food and outstanding service overshadows any possible wickedness for lack of embracing diversity. In Ma Williams’ home, I know that I am welcomed. And when the owners felt at ease enough to talk to me as an individual who they appreciated for walking into their place of business and then extended a genuine invitation for return visits, there is another place I will gladly go since I know I will be welcomed. Hello, Eastgate Cafe, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.