Atmosphere: Pleasantly elegant.
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 6 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Price range: Dinner entrees, $6.95 to $11.95.
Credit cards: All major cards.
Reservations: Advisable on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Special facilities: Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; small free parking lot adjacent to restaurant.
Our trip to Cates, located on a side street off the main drag in Old Town Alexandria, was worth every mile and every wrong turn we took.
By day, Cates is both restaurant and bakery; in the evening, it is a modestly elegant, moderately priced restaurant with a downstairs lounge. The bakery is closed then, but the kitchen bakes enough of its own fine dinner breads and cakes to more than make up for the loss.
The kitchen, in fact, prepared so many redolent dishes on the evening we visited the restaurant that it was hard to find a flaw. We only wished the bakery had been open so we could have bought a loaf of the superb, rich, hot bread.
Everything seemed to go right during our visit. First we found a parking space right in front of Cates. Then we walked in and found a lovely dining room that seemed as fresh as spring. It was about as elegant a setting as two children in jeans could stand.
There were tablecloths and candles on the tables, Breuer-style cane chairs and lots of light wood. The almost total absence of color and the predominance of light wood and contemporary design were soothing and refreshing. There wasn't a hanging or standing plant in sight--a surprisingly pleasant change of pace.
Our waitress was also a pleasant change: friendly without being overly cute, attentive without being obtrusive. But most of all it was the food that made our meal memorable.
We started off by sharing an appetizer--the fresh vegetable plate with dip ($2.50). The plate featured crunchingly fresh carrots, cucumbers, onions and celery sticks plus crisp sliced raw mushrooms and quartered tomatoes that were not up to par. The dip was a well-seasoned herb dressing with just enough body to cling to the vegetables. The vegetables and the hot, freshly baked whole wheat bread started our family's meal on a healthy note.
Our son, a vegetarian, looked over the short menu, which featured steaks, fish and chicken dishes, and wondered whether there'd be anything besides the vegetable plate for him to eat. Our waitress, a vegetarian herself, came to the rescue. Though it wasn't on the menu, she suggested the kitchen could whip up an omelet, with some simple fillings of his choice.
We appreciated the kitchen's flexibility and desire to please. The price also was right: $4.25 for a cheese/onion omelet with well-buttered, sliced new potatoes.
The rest of us enjoyed the restaurant's regular fare. The lasagna ($6.95) was made with sausage rather than ground beef, which gave the dish an extra zest. The sauce was well spiced and the noodles were light and creamy. We didn't need a knife to cut our way through this lasagna.
Marinated London broil ($7.95) also barely needed a knife. It was unbelievably tender and delicious. The beef came with sliced new potatoes still in their skins and fresh broccoli cooked only to a bright green.
An order of shrimp scampi ($9.95) featured firm, tender shrimp in a garlic sauce that stopped just short of overwhelming. So did the portion size. It was the one dish that made us glad we'd ordered an appetizer and indulged in the bread.
Since we knew the kitchen baked its own desserts, we had to try them. The selection of layer cakes and pies varies from evening to evening. We hit derby pie, chess pie and cheesecake night ($1.75 a piece). They were all superb, although on the sophsticated side for children's tastes. But a chess pie that's overloaded with nuts and so hot it cools in your mouth is worth acquiring a taste for.
Our dinner for four came to $41.12, including a half-carafe of wine, soft drinks for the children, and tax. It was several dollars above our usual family dinner budget, but good enough to warrant the splurge.