Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Atmosphere: Hole in the wall.
Prices: $1.15 to $2.50.
Credit Cards: No.
Special Facilities: Narrow aisles of health food store make access to cafe in rear difficult, but not impossible for the physically handicapped; parking on street.
Only a year ago my son was adamant: He didn't want to eat anywhere that didn't serve meat. Well, the world turns; kids change. Today he's a vegetarian, and he's uncomfortable at the old family favorites because it's so hard to find something he can eat. The announcement that we were heading for a quick, cheap veggie-style dinner out brought whoops of joy. Now he would have a whole menu of alternatives.
Friends who work near the University of Maryland had recommended Berwyn Cafe as a quaint hole in the wall where one could gorge on delicious, cheap vegetarian fare.
I called ahead for directions and times open, and got a hint of what was to come. "Beautiful Da," said the voice answering the phone. "This is Berwyn Cafe."
The voice also imparted a vital piece of information: The cafe closes at 7:30 every night. We had to hussle to get there in time, which meant going to dinner directly from soccer practice and dance class. My children were looking a little worse for the wear and tear of these efforts, but at Berwyn Cafe, that's no problem. Attire more elaborate would be out of place.
Hole in the wall is too glamorous a description: Berwyn Cafe is at the back of the Beautiful Day health food store, nestled behind the bins of kidney beans and coconut granola in a cozy corner where tables are covered with green plaid oil cloth and a counter separates the kitchen from the dining area.
This is an order-at-the-counter and serve-yourself place. The menu is on a board hanging over the salad bar, but the prices make one pause: Egg salad or tofu sandwich, $1.15; vegetable or humus sandwich, $1.50; avocado sandwich, $1.75; and hot Reuben (meatless), $2. The casserole special of the night was eggplant, $2.50. The soups of the day, $1 a bowl, were lentil barley and cream of celery. Saladsa were $1.25 to $2.25.
The food was prepared and served by a very sweet and gentle young woman who stood alone behind the counter. If we were surprised by the prices, we were stunned by the quality and quantity of the food she dispensed. My son and I started with soup. He had the lentil and barley, which needed salt but was otherwise rich and delicious. I had the cream of celery soup, and it was superb -- rich and creamy and chock-full of crunchy bits of celery.
Seeing loaves of whole-wheat bread lined up on a shelf, I asked for a slice to go with the soup. "I just took a loaf out of the oven. Would you like a slice from that? Would you like the heel?" the cook asked. She sliced off a very generous chunk of hot bread. The butter I spread on it from a crock on the counter melted in. It was wonderful. It cost 25 cents.
My daughter ordered the eggplant casserole. The cook told us that, unfortunately, there was only half an order of rice left so she could serve up only half an order of eggplant. That was okay with my daughter, who found the half portion too big to finish. Although the casserole of eggplant and tomato was well seasoned, it had a bitter aftertaste.
For this main course, my son tried the tofu sandwich. It was served on two slices of (cooled) whole-wheat bread and was placed with crisp romaine lettuce, delicate alfalfa sprouts, ripe tomato slices and the nicely flavored tofu. It was lovely, but he couldn't begin to finish it.
I tired the dinner salad plate, $2.25. The salad bar was practically bare by 7:15 p.m. so the cook offered to make a salad for me from her stock of greens and fillings behind the counter. What a salad it was! A dinner-size paper plate was heapeda with lettuce so fresh it crunched when cut. There were scoops of humus, tabouleh and tofu and slices of raw mushrooms, cucumber, cheese and tomato topped by light and iary alfalfa sprouts.
For dessert we couldn't resist the cinammon buns, 95 cents each, which were made with whole-wheat flour, honey and gobs of raisins, and the bread pudding, 65 cents, which was made with whole-wheat bread and lots of milk and eggs. Both the buns and the pudding were set out on the counter in huge baking pans. It was help youself -- and if you took only a little, you were charged less.
We left feeling greatly overfed but very healthy. When out bill was totaled at the cash register before we left -- Berwyn Cafe uses an honor system for reporting what was consumed -- we shelled out the grand total of $8.25 for dinner for three of us. Since there is no table servie, there is no tipping.