Round the Clock at Capitol Hill’s Francophonic, 19-Hour Diner

Cheap breakfast, lunch with the foodies, and midnight redemption.

9 a.m. Seattle's newest all-purpose hangout, Café Presse, looks great at breakfast. Morning light gushes through its wall of windows, giving the cognac bottles, wine glasses, and espresso getup at the bar an extra-shiny glow. The three-month-old cafe's sister restaurant, Jim Drohman and Joanne Herron's Le Pichet, was born to look like a well-loved Parisian bistro, but the repurposed-warehouse look of Café Presse could only be contemporary American. The exposed-brick walls are girdled in an earthquake-mitigating steel frame, and all the paint and plaster have been scraped off the high ceiling to reveal chic raw wood. Even the Frenchity touches—pale-blue flocked wallpaper and a giant clock that looks as if it was heisted from a Lyon train station—emphasize the Seattle-ness of a cafe trying to be classic and modern, casual and upscale, all at once. Nine in the morning may be the only time when the cafe feels empty. With the exception of the home-office crowd at the bar, who've walled in the barista with their laptops, only a couple of the olive-green tables along the brick wall are occupied. Café Presse may awaken at 7 a.m., but the rest of Capitol Hill does not. Nine o'clock is the perfect time to read a magazine, drink an Americano, and order something light off the restaurant's all-in-one menu. I suppose I could get an entrée of poisson sauté à la meunière, but I'm really there for an omelet with mushrooms. It's a real two-egg omelet, not some IHOP cheese-stuffed behemoth, folded into a narrow oval just like the Julia Child diagrams show. I can taste the butter in the creamy eggs, and the button mushrooms have been sautéed to order. The omelet is the perfect complement to a hunk of baguette and my mood. Plus, the meal, with tip, costs less than $10. Noon It appears that everyone from Seattle University, Swedish Hospital, the local foodie community, and Capitol Hill's modeling talent has decided that Café Presse is the perfect lunch spot. Would I prefer to wait 30 minutes for a table or take a seat at the window? the host asks. I take the window, sip my teensy bottle of soda, and play with the orange mustard pot for a half-hour until the food arrives. What I've always liked about Le Pichet, and now Café Presse as well, is that Drohman loves the French for who they are and not for some ethereally classy people we imagine them to be. Americans have reinterpreted the salade niçoise as a bowl of gourmet greens with some seared ahi, green beans, and olives. But at Café Presse, it's a pile of top-notch, oil-canned tuna plopped on top of some boiled potatoes, with hard-boiled eggs, olives, chickpeas, and anchovies. It's a working man's lunch, the kind you'd expect to get at a dockside cafe in Nice. If I didn't have to go back to the office, I'd follow it up with a Ricard and a cigarette. Just seems like the thing to do. 7 p.m. On Friday night, with the front room filled again, the host sends my friends and me to the back room, which is about half the size of the front and packed tight with banquettes and green tables. "Reserved" signs mark most of the other empty ones; dinner, in the back room, is apparently the only time and place you can make a reservation at Café Presse. The crowd that filters in over the next hour—prides of fortysomething gay men wearing expensive shirts, women who've had work done, people who probably ate at Lark the week (or night) before—has more money than the lunchtime clientele. But it's not all about money; while the conversation in the room thickens, the woman sitting next to us placidly reads a book while she muses on a croque monsieur and salad. This time we plumb the highest end of the menu, starting with a chicken-liver terrine so moussed up with whipped cream that you wonder how the cooks even cut it into slices. An arugula salad with goat-cheese-smeared croutons is dressed perfectly: not so vinegary that my mouth puckers, not so light that it tastes like a pile of raw leaves. Judged by price, the shining light at Café Presse, just as at Le Pichet, is the roast chicken (it serves two or, more realistically, three). "It takes an hour to prepare," the waitress tells us. "But if I put the order in now, by the time you finish with your appetizers and drinks, it'll be up." This turns out not to be true. Eventually, after we've ordered a second salad and finished off a second basket of bread, the chicken comes, accompanied by mounds and mounds of crisp, skin-on fries. The roast chicken is a wonder: so damn juicy and tender, just pulled from the oven the moment the last bit of pink flesh went opaque, with a glorious, crackly exterior. Except there's one problem. "It's too salty," notices my friend Anne when we attack the bird. We've just spent an hour talking about how much we all love chicken skin, and as we all verify her claim, the sense of loss is epic. The flesh underneath may be perfectly seasoned, but each time my bite includes the skin, I can barely taste the meat for the salt. We mention the problem to the waitress, who shrugs and says, "Oh, I like adding extra salt to my food." (So do I, lady, just not enough to cure my tongue.) The hanger steak, normally one of my favorite cuts of beef, also has a gorgeous crust and rare-to-medium-rare meat—but the cooks have sliced it too thick, and not quite against the grain, so the meat takes much more work to chew than it should. Café Presse is still the place where I most want to snack, but as a full-on dining experience, both the food and service need more work. It's not a French thing, either. If we were really dealing with Parisian cafe waiters, they'd deliver spot-on service with absolutely no charm. Then, after two months of devoted supplication, I'd pass some invisible test and make it into the inner circle, privy to wisecracks and special tables. But no, these are regular old Capitol Hill types, so sometimes I want to go to their parties and introduce them to my friends, and sometimes I just want them to stop jawing at their co-workers so they can bring me my #$^!$@ check. Midnight When I meet up with a couple of friends for an end-of-night snack, there are more people out for a cocktail and sandwich than I expected (Seattle restaurateurs, take note). With all the expectations of dinner long over, Café Presse wins me over again: A $4 Costières de Nimes is as crisp and dry as I want it to be, and the country ham, sliced as thin as tissue, slowly releases all its musky, buttery notes as it melts on the tongue. The croque monsieur—a baked ham-and-Gruyère sandwich topped with a bubbly swath of béchamel sauce—is rich enough to counteract any number of pints. A salad of summer tomatoes topped with a scoop of black-olive tapenade is just as understated as the food at a classic French bistro should be: no garnish, no pretension, just a few ingredients on the plate that belong together. I don't know that I've ever found myself out at 1 in the morning, drinking a glass of wine and chatting over ham and tomatoes. Everyone around me seems to be in the same curiously relaxed mood. There are no loud drunks, no bottomless pots of coffee, no last-call hookups being strategized. It's pretty much the same scene as breakfast, minus the laptops. I'm tempted to order an Americano and an omelet and start the cycle all over again. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com Correction: The original version of this article stated that the wine was a Cotes de Gascogne, not a Costieres de Nimes.

 
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