You’d probably never just happen to walk past Volunteer Park Cafe, unless you a) lived amidst the yoga-pants soccer moms in the Northeast corner of Capitol Hill in a craftsman you were able to afford because you sold a kidney on Craigslist, or b) got lost on the way to happy hour at Smith and managed to stumble 18 minutes in the wrong direction. Our point being: Volunteer Park Cafe is the excellent neighborhood bistro that you need to know someone (us) to know about.
Which isn’t to say that plenty of people don’t know about it. By day, VPC is packed like sardines for breakfast and lunch, with the hissing of almond milk steaming and the sawing of freshly-baked bread as its soundtrack to the morning madness. It’s a great spot for brioche french toast or a breakfast panini while quickly meeting a friend to catch up (Judy’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin’s fiance’s sister did what?), if you’re willing to deal with real-life tetris and potentially eat your seasonal quiche standing up while you stalk around for a table. You can also always take one of their great pastries to-go, and when the weather’s warm there are a couple of two-seater tables outside to escape the chaos.
But the secret to reaping the benefits of Volunteer Park Cafe is actually going at night. When 7pm strikes and vases of flowers and candles hit the tables that once contained small children shrieking, VPC is a totally different restaurant - one that’s perfect for pretty much any nighttime occasion. It’s the type of space where you can laugh too loudly with your crew, but also spend hours with a date saying sweet nothings over molten chocolate cake.
Volunteer Park Cafe is such a staple coffee-and-breakfast joint that most people forget that their dinner menu - American classics with some semi-Italian dishes thrown in - is really well-done. You can get a top-notch caesar salad, or a perfectly creamy chicken pot pie, or a french dip. Reservations are always easy to come by, and you can lay claim to the communal table for a group event - so the only tetris you’ll be playing is on your phone. But don’t do that at the dinner table. It’s rude.
Poached eggs, bacon, tomato, and gruyere between pressed country bread. This what you want for breakfast.
Usually a bread basket doesn’t have much star power, but this butter is infused with all kinds of fresh herbs from VPC’s garden, so it deserves some props. Your mom would tell you that this will spoil your appetite, but we are not your mom.
All of the salads here are great, but this is an especially good caesar. Dressing-to-romaine ratio is at Goldilocks’ standards, and we’d like to bag up a few handfuls of the brioche croutons for snacktime later.
On our most recent visit here, while we were taking a bite of this breadcrumb-topped baked four-cheese mac, “At Last” started playing. No song was ever more appropriate.
The concept of a mini pot pie is genius, because it’s all of the decadence with less of the fetal position afterwards. This one is awesome. Chicken, pearl onions, peas, carrots, and more of those special garden herbs in a creamy sauce and topped with puff pastry, which will flake off into a million pieces and end up all over the table and in your hair. Worth it.
When you want something a little more substantial, this is your order. Braised brisket with polenta, garlicky kale, and a red wine reduction. It’s super simple, but it’s what we end up craving every time. This thing is better than the company of whoever you’re eating with.
This gooey molten fudge cake in a mug looks like wet potting soil topped with whipped cream. It’s amazing.