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DINING: Cafe 21 Is A Hidden Treasure


The Cafe 21 interior.
Courtesy photo

No one loves finding hidden treasures more than this lot. Join us in our delightful discovery of Café 21, a simple, yet stylish venue that drew us in with a remarkable array of food, comfort and friendliness. We’re in love with this place, so much so we’ve already been back three times.

Café 21 is an odd, wonderfully offbeat restaurant that must be experienced. Sitting unpretentiously on Adams Avenue (where you can find a great many good restaurants) Café 21 is neighbors with an ancient liquor store with the expected ambience of a worn-out strip mall. Don’t be fooled by its exterior or location. Walk in these doors or sit on the patio and you will become enchanted with Café 21’s offerings. There’s even a swing seat on the patio if you like…don’t ask, we don’t get it either, but it’s cool to watch.

Of the many accolades Café 21 absolutely deserves, the impeccable service reigns supreme. Actually to call it “service” is almost an insult. This is not a place where plastic smileshoping for plastic tips set the tone. No, this is sheer quality of individuals that are a part of your experience, with just the right amount of playful banter to make the occasion a memorable one.

Café 21 is a “strip mall” wonder. The place is a bit grubby on the outside (that would be the strip mall) yet ultra cool when you cross its threshold. Café 21 is small, so be prepared to make new friends sitting next to you. Actually the level of intimacy is dead on, where you can enjoy your immediate company and observe your fellow diners. And who doesn’t like to people watch and eavesdrop…..c’mon you know you do.

Staff hijinks began the night with discussions of wine, red or white, and then which one was most fitting. Not shying away from the battle, our marvelous server (Jason) captivated us all by bringing samples of each until we found the right match. Now that is uncompromising attention. Homemade bread quickly followed but not the usual sourdough, French or artisan fare. This was truly homemade with a delectable buttery texture and a perfectly crispy crust.


Strawberry salad.
Courtesy photo

The preparation and presentation of the numerous teas available was fun to watch and experience. Whether hot or cold, a carafe of hot water is brought to the table with a filter placed upon your glass or cup. Pick your tea flavor and let the water pour. If it’s iced tea you’re looking for, then a tall glass of ice will cool off that hot tea for a satisfying, flavorful beverage.

The entire menu is eclectic, with heightened sweet and savory prepared dishes. Never overpowering, but with just enough to compel the palette to encounter something new. The appetizer apricot cristo crepes (with turkey, mozzarella, apricot preserve and a raspberry-pomegranate blend, $8) completely spun our culinary heads. Sweet and savory. Firm yet delicate. The crepes embodied everything you could want in a dish – pure satisfaction. If looking for a salad, Café 21 has several delights to captivate and all are presented with generous portions and artistry. Knocking it out of the park was the grilled pear salad (with dried cranberries, feta cheese, spring mix and honey balsamic dressing-$11). Simplicity mixed with a cornucopia of flavor, texture and taste.

The Café 21 pasta stuffed with lamb and topped with caramelized onions ($17), and the special flank steak stuffed with vegetables and bathed in a fabulous sauce ($18) were the entrees of choice. While the pasta dish was a little more dumpling than pasta with a somewhat doughy consistency, the dish sprang to life with its subtle flavors and uncompromising textures. You could not just eat one bite. The flank steak was more “beef stew – Six-Million-Dollar-Man-style.” The combination of ingredients, vegetables, seasonings and just good ‘ol comfort food made this an amazingly memorable entree. It was truly a savory, satiating piece of culinary love.

Café 21 is that rare treat that seemingly had a vision and stuck with it until everything fell into place. We cannot recall a more enjoyable evening with such technique and simplicity. When the server pours you a glass of wine, looks at the small portion still left in an almost empty bottle, and then tops you off with the rest, you know you’re home. Café 21 is not about just feeding your appetite but also about feeding your soul. No apologies here, we simply cannot say enough about this place. Go for lunch, go for dinner or just go for a glass of wine in the swing seat on the patio. Whether it’s the great server (did we mention Jason?) or the owners Alex and Leyla (hailing from Baku, Azerbaijan which explains many of the unique Middle Eastern flavors) they’ll fulfill your every whim.

The Good:We can’t say enough, the dishes are unsurpassed in flavor and comfort.

The Bad: The food is too good for them to be using, um, paper napkins.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-640-2121
  • Name: Cafe 21
  • Address: 2736 Adams Ave