It wasn’t long ago that a trip to the Lincoln Cafe also meant spending two hours noodling around Mt. Vernon while waiting for a table to become available. Waits were long and, after peeking into a kitschy shop or two, it wasn’t uncommon to end up down the street at the cafe’s wine bar where the small selection of wines and craft beers subdued hungry diners and even became an anticipated part of the Lincoln Cafe experience. Now, pre-dinner drinks will have to be planned as the restaurant recently started accepting reservations, and it’s highly recommended to make one well in advance: This place is always packed, and nights get booked fast.
The demand to eat at this restaurant is warranted. Chef and Owner Matt Steigerwald and his committed staff care about food deeply, and it shows in their unpretentious menu and thoughtful approach to service.
While many talented chefs whose restaurants have cult-like followings (more on that later) have decided to rebel against the deluge of various dietary restrictions and eating habits, Lincoln Cafe has quietly included a little for everyone. Alongside high-quality meats butchered and cured in-house, interesting vegetable entrees are equally enticing.
The most ubiquitously inviting aspect of the menu is that, while the price of some entrées can exceed $30, their regular menu always boasts several amazing and filling sandwiches that are all are under $10. The clichéd portabella mushroom becomes delicious and mildly addictive on a sandwich served with pungent herby pesto and roasted seasonal vegetables. Burgers prepared with various fresh ingredients are another good options for those on a budget.
Muted lighting, retro booths and two-bladed fans rotating hypnotically overhead distinguish the spacious yet cozy dining room at Lincoln Cafe. Service is brief and efficient with a dash of surprise: It is rare to see a waiter lording over a table, rattling off lists of specials boasting of organic and local ingredients (even though they source much of their food from area purveyors). Instead, questions about the menu are answered; drinks are brought; food is delivered. When a server does decide to break from their efficient routine, it is to add a little well-placed fun into the evening. On one occasion, beef sliders topped with quail eggs on a bed of jasmine rice were delivered with an anecdote. Quick and to the point, the server told us the story that inspired the recipe and unusual presentation. It was charming and elevated the experience.
Steigerwald is committed to experimenting with new cuisines, ingredients and cooking methods, and he shares the results at monthly Sunday dinners. Special and sometimes unusual ingredients are purchased for these meals—an opportunity for open-minded diners to try something new. Each time a theme is chosen that inspires the menu. One month it was Montreal, another time it was Carolina Fish Camp. In October, the meal was inspired by cuisine from the South Pacific. Ahi poke, a raw tuna dish typical in Hawaiian cuisine, was followed by other dishes including fluffy house-baked rolls and banana-leaf wrapped pork. While the meal seemed to get less interesting as it drew on (the pork was at times dry and a vat of macaroni salad indiscernible from the Midwest potluck staple seemed like a filler course), the banana fritters with coconut ice cream were stellar, and the extremely reasonable price ($35 for five courses) made any complaining seem silly.
The cozy atmosphere, delicious food and community-oriented experimental dinners have earned Lincoln Cafe a dedicated following, one that the restaurant seems to want to stamp in place, literally. At 25 customers and counting, in exchange for a lifetime of free French fries, the cafe encourages customers to tattoo three simple words that make up both the website name and what seems to be their guiding principle: Food is important.
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