At night the cozy, candlelit tables look inviting through the two-story windowed exterior of this former five-and-10-cent store.
Inside, the dark green table cloths, the accents of polished brass and stained glass mix comfortably with framed, contemporary posters, a fig tree decked out in mini-lights and the soft jazz music in the background. The music is live, and louder, on Friday and Saturday nights.
The modest menu suits the size of the restaurant and allows for a list of daily specials ranging from soup to dessert. The quality, however, varied.
The appetizers get things off to a strong start. The garlicky steamed mussels were exceptionally tender -- some of the best I've eaten -- and with at least 15 to a serving, a good deal at $3.50.
Another winning appetizer, four cubes of brie tempura served with raspberry preserves for dipping, presented interesting contrasts between crisp and creamy, buttery rich and fruity sweet.
There is also a familiar shrimp cocktail and a cheese fondue. Our friendly waitress discouraged us from ordering the shrimp satay appetizer because, she said, the portion was small -- three shrimps for $3.95.
We discovered a superb soup because of a large ceiling fan that keeps the air circulating, sometimes so efficiently that downstairs diners feel as if they're seated by the door.
The special soup that day was yellow lima bean and ham -- not an inspiring name to be sure, but we needed to warm up. What was served in the large white bowl was not only warming but a savory treat that would make any grandmother proud. The broth was light and peppery, chock full of wide, plump yellow limas and chunks of carrot and celery with short strips of ham for flavor. The cook's wife was given credit for this effort and I'd be willing to gamble on more of her creations du jour. She is also responsible for a very satisfying onion soup, which is a standard item on the menu.
It's a shame that none of the entrees could match the best of the appetizers and soups. On the basis of price, however, I could recommend the 16-ounce porterhouse steak, a special for $8.95 on Wednesday nights. The steak, although not aged and prime, was flavorful and expertly charcoal-broiled.
For the same bargain price on Thursday night, there is a one pound Maine lobster. Judging from a stuffed lobster ordered on another night, this deal may be less of a bargain. The general lack of flavor and tough tail meat made this lobster a disappointing choice.
The blackened redfish didn't miss by too much. The portion was large and thick and definitely blackened enough, but the seasoning was too tame.
The flounder filets wrapped around a mound of bland crabmeat imperial needed more zip, too.
On the other hand, the earthy flavor of the mushroom stuffing was delicious in the chicken rouladen. But that accomplishment was diminished by an unpleasant champagne sauce and a rolled breast of chicken that was overcooked.
The veal three crowns, dotted with a skimpy allotment of asparagus, artichokes and prosciutto, tasted less than regal under a listless cream sauce.
Also included with each entree is a salad and vegetable -- tired green beans on a couple of visits -- plus a choice of a baked potato or a rice pilaf that tasted like seasoned minute rice.
The quality shifts back into high gear for dessert. This is the time to splurge on such treats as turtle cheesecake, Bailey's Irish Cream moussecake or chocolate truffle cheesecake, all flown in from the Aphrodite Bakery in San Francisco. The only low-calorie relief from these and other wildly rich desserts that taste as good as they look is a wine glass of fresh strawberries.
The service staff is very friendly and well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with a busy dining room.
The kitchen at The 5 and Dime Cafe has a good opening act and a fine finish. What is needed is an equally strong performance from the main courses to put this restaurant's name up in lights.