New Durham café is atmospheric and authentic
I got into the habit of driving to Durham from my south Chico home when my daughter Lydia, now 3, was a baby. Our meandering explorations of the lovely country roads never failed to lull her to sleep.
We were glad to discover, recently, The Farmers’ Café. Tucked into a tiny shopping mall on the Midway that used to be part of the old train depot, right as you hit town, the café, newly opened in early August, catches one’s attention for two reasons: its simple, striking sign featuring the bright yellow-and-black universal symbol meaning, basically, “Watch out for tractors,” and the crowds of people, mostly farmers, frequenting the place.
The décor alone would have put this establishment high on our list of places to go—photographs of tractors all over the walls, even in the bathroom, taken by one of the owners, fifth-generation Durhamite Cindy Cosola, at this past summer’s Threshing Bee. Lydia loves tractors. But, even more than tractors, she loves trains! And there, above our heads, choo-chooing around on a ledge running the entire upper perimeter of the restaurant, was a large, bright-green electric train, little lights a-glowing, hauling its cargo of miniature John Deere tractors. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.
We’ve eaten at The Farmers’ Café three times now, always at lunchtime, always waited on by friendly, mom-like waitress Sharron Sanders, who has lived in Durham “since before dirt,” as she puts it. We know to check the special board to see what the lunch special is.
The last time we were there it was homemade meat loaf with homemade mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and homemade soup or green salad ($5.75). Co-owner Patrick Cosola says that all of the specials are dreamed up by his trusted chef John Candelaria, who has 38 years’ experience cooking all over the country. We order the special with salad and soup, just right for the two of us. The circling train keeps Lydia entertained while we wait for our food. ("We have nieces,” Cindy Cosola tells me, when I comment on how cool it is that they have a train.)
The thick homemade split pea soup with nice-sized chunks of ham is delicious. The meat loaf with brown gravy is delicately spiced and tastes like something you might get at Grandma’s house. We can’t finish everything—the portions are ample. Sanders, the Cosolas and manager Van Abercrombie, a big, cheery man of Scottish descent, stop by at various points in our meal to check on us and chat.
The menu is filled with hearty breakfast items, such as buttermilk biscuits with homemade bacon gravy ($3.50), the “Cold Stopper,” scrambled eggs with garlic, and garlic hash browns and toast ($4.50), cracked-wheat pancakes “made with cracked wheat from the Patrick Ranch Threshing Bee” (three for $4.25), and a special French toast made from “cinnamon cream cheese swirl bread dipped in a secret batter topped with slivered almonds” ($4).
Equally down-home lunch items include a smoked tri-tip sandwich with steak fries or salad ($5.99), 1/3-lb. “hand-formed” burgers ($4.25 with fries or salad), grilled chicken breast sandwich ($5.50) and grilled ham ("piled high") and cheese ($3.75). All burgers, tri-tip and chicken are cooked on a Traeger wood pellet smoker, giving the meat a “deep smoke flavor” from the cherry, alder and oak wood. Meal-sized salads (including “John Deere Greens” at $4.95) are also available.
Kids’ menu items—for example, grilled cheese (with farmer fries, salad, homemade potato salad or applesauce)—are $2.50. Desserts include Uncle Patrick’s Homemade Brownie Sundae ($3.95) with homemade dark chocolate sauce, whipped cream and grated truffle.
“I wanted [The Farmers’ Café] to be family-friendly," Patrick Cosola tells me. "We see a lot of families on Saturdays."