‘You gotta try this!’
The unpretentious (and enthusiastic!) Foodie Cafe
Sometimes the spirit of a restaurant is captured by a single iconic image. For the Foodie Café, the lunch stop at the Chico Airport, that icon is an exclamation point. There are six of them on the cover of the menu alone, with more throughout the menu and on the walls. Everything about the Foodie Café, it would appear, is exciting—right down to the “Choice of Bread!”
Eating at the Foodie Café is like having lunch with P. T. Barnum. The décor is Early Whirligig. The menu is a barrage of stimuli: First, it’s endless. Second, each dish is described in loving detail, with breathless superlatives and come-ons: “You gotta try this!” “You haven’t lived till you’ve scarfed this down!” “Like nothing you’ve ever seen!” Some dishes are so amazing they require two or three intensifiers: “incredible over-the-top breakfasts!” It’s more enthusiastic than a Belieber fan club meeting. Third, almost every dish has several idiosyncratic ingredients. The mustard alone requires study—it’s “applewood cold-smoked,” then mixed with balsamic vinegar, honey and garlic. Like Ulysses, this menu is a tome intended to be read into, but never finished.
Boyd and Vicki Atkin, the owners (who also run Chico Catering Co.) and self-described “purveyors of innovative and memorable deliciousness,” said some customers had suggested they simplify it, but they “don’t want people to get bored.” Fat chance.
How you will feel about all this hype and razzle-dazzle is hard to predict. At first I hated it. Then I loved it. In part the shift came when I realized that it’s all meant as pure fun and springs from joy. Boyd and Vicki love running this place, and they let it fly. Boyd is bursting with ideas about dishes and recipes, and he wants to explore all of them. It’s not a business, it’s a party, a labor of love, a passionate hobby, with all the exuberance that goes with it. They invite you to join them.
The food is exactly what the presentation leads you to expect. It’s “loud”—the culinary equivalent of a brass band. Nothing is subtle. Everything explodes with flavor. Everything is tweaked to make it interesting, special, “incredible.”
Sometimes it doesn’t work well. Certainly Boyd can try too hard, as with the chicken sriracha doughnut waffle, made from an actual doughnut (really). The homemade chips are too salty, slightly over-cooked, and too barbecue-y for me. But more often than not, it clicks. The brisket’s barbecue sauce is ideal (customers bring in their Mason jars to buy it from Boyd). The bacon (sourced from a master baconeer in Redding) is grand. The Tuscan chicken sandwich is excellent, on a fine focaccia bread from Tin Roof Bakery, with the aforementioned mustard, which I love.
In the final analysis, “Foodie Café” is a misleading name for this place. Yes, they’re using local produce from the farmers’ market, making their own chips, putting bacon in the Bloody Marys and serving wines from hip, below-the-radar wineries. But the soul is pure Mel’s Diner from the TV show Alice. The staff wear name tags so you can call them by name. They remember you from last time, and they say things like, “I think you need a brownie today.” The clientele are blue-collar regulars. The core of the menu is still burgers, chili and grilled cheese.
The Foodie Café is a perfect projection of its unpretentious, zealous owners. It’s the precise opposite of the polished, market-researched, trend-conscious franchise restaurant I ate in the night before. And I vastly preferred it.