Sunday, February 27, 2011

When on Earth will Sidebar Cafe Get It Right?

Neighborhoods such as our downtown historic districts need good cafes. This seems pretty obvious to me--when you have a good cafe, people go and hang out and spend money. Both of the neighborhoods I lived in in Pittsburgh had good cafes--Shadyside had several reasonably good ones along Walnut, and Highland Park had the exceptional Tazza d'Oro. (All of these are still thriving since my departure, I might add, despite the grim economy.)
When I arrived in Dayton, I was gratified to find what seemed like the Dayton version of Tazza d'Oro, a place called Pacchia's. The coffee was good, there was a fine selection of pastries and breads, there was an adjoining restaurant serving lunch and brunch, and it was clear everyone in the area went there. In the evening it also served beer and wine, so it was the perfect place to stop with friends after a movie at the Neon. It was not quite on the same level as Tazza d'Oro in terms of cafe food, but it was about as close as I could reasonably expect.
In January 2010, however, Pacchia's rather silently changed ownership. At first all that was noticeable was that the cafe closed for a week for some counter remodeling. The new counter was supposed to make things more convenient, although I thought it was less so than the original one.
Gradually, I became aware that the restaurant side--which had been quite a popular destination as well--was closed and that the cafe no longer served beer and wine in the evening. People coming in for brunch were sent away and told that they could get sandwiches at the deli down the street. The restaurant side gradually became off-limits to cafe patrons, meaning less seating in the morning hours, and there were usually people over there discussing remodeling plans. For a long time people didn't know what to call the place other than "the place that used to be Pacchia's," so finally staff began to tell us to call it the Sidebar, that it had been bought by a downtown bar by that name.
For the first few months, it wasn't all that different beyond the lack of brunch. I think people were fairly optimistic that the new management simply had to get things off the ground. The cafe began to serve some pretty good sandwiches.
Around the time I bought my house, the cafe closed for yet more remodeling. I can't remember whether this was at the same time as the restaurant side reopened--probably. At any rate, it reopened with a completely different wood floor (staff said they thought this one would be easier to clean than the previous one, which I thought pretty unlikely *I've just heard that the new floor is vinyl, so that's why*), a completely new and expensive-looking counter area, and a yellow-orange-green paint scheme. Now, I wouldn't say I dislike the new counter area visually, but the old one was much too nice to get rid of, and the old paint scheme was far better. (I heard a fair number of customers comment on how they disliked the new paint; I can only remember hearing one say he liked it.) The restaurant area was also remodeled, moving the bar from one corner to another for no discernible reason. Basically, the remodeling seemed like a major waste of time and money, done only to emphasize that this was Sidebar now and not Pacchia's.
One day when I was hauling stuff over to the new house, I had a craving for one of the nice new sandwiches the cafe had been serving. I've forgotten whether it was tuna or chicken salad. In any case, I stopped in, only to be told that if I wanted lunch I had to go to the restaurant side. Mildly embarrassed, I sat down. I was in work clothes, fairly grimy, and this was all sparkling white tablecloth, with nothing under $10 on the menu. The food was excellent, but the ambiance was hardly what I had in mind.
After the restaurant opened, people continued to come in on weekends hoping for brunch, but the restaurant wasn't serving. Nor is the cafe open in the evenings anymore. The cafe no longer served the sandwiches, and the pastry case was utterly gone, so that instead of a tempting array of lemon bars and muffins (the sunrise muffins had been excellent), you were lucky if you could get a bagel. Coffee customers ceased to have a choice among skim, regular milk, and half-and-half; fortunately I prefer half-and-half since that's all there is now. Honey and the shakers of chocolate and spices disappeared. The new layout also means that the employees often forget to put out napkins or jackets or the half-and-half; I still, months later, regularly hear them complain of not knowing where to find things.
Recently the cafe began serving breakfast items like breakfast sandwiches and waffles. I was delighted to notice this when I stopped in on my way to school, and decided I'd give this a try on Sunday when I'd have a stack of grading to do. I biked over with my quizzes and papers, heartily looking forward to the new menu, only to be told that they don't serve breakfast on the weekend. Supposedly "only about five people will ask for breakfast or lunch today" and to get more would require expensive advertising, so it wouldn't be worth it.
Stunned by this strange logic, I pointed out that most people who want something don't bother to ask if it looks like it's not available; they just get something else or leave entirely. (Usually I get a bagel, but I didn't see any, so I just got coffee instead of the planned breakfast.) Besides, in a neighborhood cafe there's no real need to spend any money advertising; all you need to do is put a sign on the door or a chalkboard on the sidewalk announcing you've got something new and exciting on the menu.
It's no surprise that fewer and fewer people go to the cafe. The groups I used to see nearly every time I came by rarely seem to meet in the space. I'm guessing that some of them may go over to Ohio Coffee Company now, which is the closest place I know of but not very close to my house nor, last I checked, open on weekends. I like Ohio Coffee Company quite a bit, it's just not all that convenient for me, being somewhat more downtown.
If I go down to the University of Dayton area, there are several options in the form of Panera, Starbuck's, and the relatively new cafe Butter. The two chains are pretty good, but I prefer to support local independents when possible. Butter has very good breakfasts--I really like their Paris Omelet--but for the price there ought to be potatoes with the omelets (you'd get that for the same price even in an expensive city like Berkeley), the coffee is marginal, and the waitstaff doesn't seem fully trained yet (often they forget to bring the coffee until well after the food arrives, and friends and I have encountered other such faux pas). But in any case the UD area isn't remarkably convenient for me, even though I can bike there so long as it's not snowy or raining.
In sum, I'd say the Oregon District, St. Anne's Hill, and northern South Park are thirsting for the ideal local cafe. In my opinion, that's a cafe with good coffee, teas, and free wifi, a nice selection of bagels and pastries, which ideally serves soups, salads, and to some extent sandwiches and egg-based things. It should be good both for take-out coffee and for lingering (those who linger reading or grading tend to end up buying more food and drink).
It's my understanding that the Sidebar restaurant is very good--and that's a fine thing--but while I might go to the restaurant once or twice a year (I haven't been yet other than the one lunch foray), I'd be spending a much more reliable stream of cash on bagels, muffins, sandwiches, soup, and the occasional omelet. I don't think I'm alone in this. Alas, it seems clear that Sidebar's owners are really only interested in running a relatively fancy restaurant and have no clue (or don't care) that they could earn quite a bit serving the community with a better cafe.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of people have left pertinent comments on Facebook, so I will quote them:

    "Didn't Press just open on Wayne? Ghostlight will be opening soon on Wayne in South Park. People are turning the Wympee on Third into a cafe. As far as I'm concerned, this gives Sidebar a pass to provide Dayton with something very important: well-made cocktails actually worth the hefty price. Besides, Pacchia hadn't added anything to the Dayton food scene since I was in high school (when it was actually much more expensive than Sidebar)."
    "I am not a cafe sitter myself.... but I know with the hours of grading and such that you do, a good cafe is a must. Press has good coffee, but I'm not inclined to sit there as it's mostly a bunch of so-called dirty hipsters hanging out with their friends (the owners). Maybe as the place catches on that will change."

    I replied:
    "I had thought something new opened on Wayne, but Ghostlight was clearly not open yet and I haven't seen Press although I go down Wayne all the time. I would love to see the Wympee become a cafe--what a great art deco building! It's also possible that the former American Saloon on 5th will become a cafe--neighbors are renovating and hope to attract someone who will make a good hangout of it."