Tarrant's Café 

Can a restaurant save downtown?

click to enlarge food02_lede_tarrants_148.jpg

Here's a riddle for the New Year: When is a complaint a compliment?

Answer: When you can't find a place to park downtown at night because there is so much going on.

The latest contributor to this "problem" is Tarrant's Café, which opened in October in a tiny space that for a century housed a pharmacy/soda shop of the same name before being vacated more than 20 years ago.

Tarrant's opening has brought critical mass to the restaurant scene at the western edge of the city's once vibrant shopping district, which is fast losing a reputation as an eerie wasteland that comes to life only for First Fridays Artwalks. New apartments and condominiums are blooming above both the galleries and the still-vacant storefronts.

Park your car, if you can find a space on Broad Street east of Belvidere, and you have your choice of four full-service restaurants that offer food, from the truck-stop style of Comfort to the trendy cuisine at Twenty-Seven, plus Lift, a retro coffee shop, and the two latest additions, Popkin Tavern and now Tarrant's, which is squeezed into a building the size of a mobile home.

From the outside, Tarrant's may look like Perly's, a nearby luncheon institution, but inside it more resembles Comfort, taken up a notch.

Chef-owner Ted Santarella and Sherry Loop, his partner (in all ways), polished the ancient cut-glass windows that advertised "drugs, soda, tobacco" — while thankfully banning the latter — and transformed the marble, L-shaped soda fountain into a handsome bar.

The menu is weighted toward soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps (one for vegetarians), but diners who forego the half-dozen entrees and daily specials will deprive themselves of some of Santarella's best work.

While Tarrant's is a natural choice for a quick bite for lunch or dinner (the same menu is served throughout the day), a leisurely dinner amid local art, flowers, candles and bargain-priced wine is the room's highest and best use.

A seafood crepe boasts half a dozen jumbo shrimp and chunks of crab and scallop in a lobster and tomato cream sauce covered with melted mozzarella; soft-shell crabs are lightly fried and battered; oven roasted salmon is simply prepared with olive oil and lemon; and lasagna is laden with sausage.

All dishes are cooked to order, and the desserts and dressings are made on-site. Santarella employs a lot of garlic and herbs in his cooking, along with citrus for accent.

Sandwiches are made of quality products, such as the corned beef brisket on a Reuben, the grilled pastrami on a Rachel and the ham on the classic French croque monsieur.

Younger diners can fill up on bowtie pasta, peel-and-eat shrimp or a chili dog, washed down with a milkshake or fruit smoothie.

The kitchen still needs to smooth out some rough patches, however. New England seafood chowder is more potato than fish; a crab cake sandwich inexplicably comes on wheat bread instead of the advertised English muffin; and the barbecue on Texas toast would benefit from more meat and less bread.

Most portions, however, are generous, necessitating a lot of to-go boxes, and several appetizers, including hummus, are large enough to share.

Santarella's emphasis on seafood reflects his introduction to the food business as a boy working in the fabled Fulton Market in his native New York City.

Some days business has been too good — the 7-by-14-foot kitchen, which takes up half the width of the building, hasn't been able to keep up, causing some customers to walk out, and others to switch their order to carry-out.

Santarella may remedy that soon by breaking through to the adjoining space, which will make room for a larger kitchen and double the present 49 seats.

Tarrant's biggest contribution to the dining scene is sensible pricing (only a couple of entrees top $15), reflecting Santarella's philosophy that he'd rather have the place full and make 10 percent than half-empty and make 20.

Now, if the city will improve the street lighting, as it's doing in the Fan, and the merchants come up with a parking solution — valet service may be a short-term fix — the West Broad corridor may be the next Carytown. S

Tarrant's Café ($$)
1 W. Broad St. (at Foushee)
225-0035
Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.;
Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight.

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  • Closed Sunday.

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