Cafe 1912's chef de cuisine Keith Riley knew when he took the job some four years ago that he had to ease into it. The French-style bistro that glows at night with deep shades of red, yellow and cobalt-blue paint has been cozily ensconced on Cooper near Peabody for more than a decade.
Owned by Glenn and Martha Hays – who have also helped to supply Memphis over the years with such dining landmarks as the former La Tourelle and the current Sweet Grass – Cafe 1912 has a large and loyal base.
"We come three or four times a month," said a local attorney as he and his wife were leaving after dinner one recent evening. "This is our 'Cheers,'" a reference to the '80s TV show about a Boston bar that was the core of a community.
Start by checking out the house wine list, a compact menu of highly drinkable goods, fairly priced at $25 a bottle, or $6.50 a glass. We were happy with HobNob's pinot noir one night and its Wicked Red blend on another.
Riley has wisely kept the soup of onions, slowly simmered in a rich brown broth and topped with Gruyère cheese toast, at the top of the menu. It defines winter comfort food.
Also still holding their own on the menu, fortunately, are pommes frites with truffle oil and mussels in white wine with croutons. If you're a longtime Cafe 1912 diner, branch out and try the fried spring roll with spiced beef — it's more of a fried pie than a roll, and it comes with a lively spinach salad in ginger vinaigrette. It's a well-rounded snack of a meal for $10.50.
The sandwiches and crepes the café serves are a rendezvous of American and French standards. The plump burgers, juicy but well molded, are served with bacon and blue cheese or smoked mozzarella, and reliably done to order. Ask for medium-rare, and you get medium-rare. Other staples are the Lyonnaise salad, with potato, bacon and green beans, and the Nicoise, with rosy seared tuna and garlic-anchovy sauce.
"You can always judge the quality of a cook or a restaurant by roast chicken," Julia Child wrote unequivocally in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." By that rule, Cafe 1912 is blue ribbon-ready. Over the years, the kitchen has never disappointed in whatever variations it's delivered on that most common of entrees. There are two chicken dishes on the current menu, a roasted breast stuffed with ham over creamy mashed potatoes and a baked chicken infused with classic flavors of lemon and thyme. Both are succulent and come in more-than-hearty portions.
The pan-seared grouper, Riley's signature dish, was a beautiful fillet, but the risotto on my plate one night was gruel-like — served before it was ready and sans its beurre blanc sauce, an error by both the plater and the server. And some of the arugula on a salad that night was colorless – old, in other words. (The pesto with that salad uses basil, a questionable combination with arugula.) Because I have been dining at Cafe 1912 for years, I knew these mistakes were unusual.
A veal piccata that night, on the other hand, was a great success. The white wine and butter sauce was substantial rather than delicate, and orzo with mushrooms lent a pleasant earthy quality.
Sunday brunch at Cafe 1912 is nicely done — and popular, so try to arrive before noon. In addition to the veal piccata, the burgers and the seafood crepe, the kitchen prepares traditional brunch dishes such as eggs Benedict, which come with unusually good cheese grits, and French toast with a peppery bacon.
A light and fresh dessert is the lemon icebox pie with a meringue cap.
Service at Cafe 1912 is brisk, friendly and communal. You can get help from any of the figures bustling among the tables.