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It's not always easy to determine what will become an institution, or why. Often, what seems a lock to those folks who like to think of themselves as being in the know proves to be little more than the flavor of the moment. And what those same folks dismiss as a passing fancy turns out to be a permanent fixture. If you want evidence, just look at Marvin Zindler.
Or, for that matter, look at Barnaby's Cafe. When this small diner named after a dog hung a hand-painted sign and opened its one warped door in 1993, it didn't appear to have a lot going for it. Sure, it was funky, but it's located in Montrose, where funky isn't particularly unique. The available parking was dreadful, if you could find any. And the food, though solid, wasn't exactly anything to write to the Cordon Bleu about. Still, the locals took one look, decided the place was charming and made it a part of their daily life.
More than that, they made it a growth industry. In three short years, Barnaby's has flourished, adding a breakfast nook, Baby Barnaby's. Still, to the uninitiated, the reason for all this success can seem a bit of a mystery. Admittedly, the decor is a plus: antique booths and fixtures are blended with handmade decorations to make this small restaurant as welcomingly safe as any pie house, and the proprietors have added their own doggy decorations for a unique look. Faux primitive paintings of the namesake (and deceased) sheepdog are hung outside, and similar crude accents dot the interior. Over diners' heads, the theme is Barnaby in Heaven (apparently he was a very good sheepdog), and images of a winged, crudely rendered canine share the ceiling with rosy-tinged clouds. The afterlife motif has an innocent charm that compensates for the condition of the ceiling it covers. The angel dogs frolic over a couple of bad patches, and one all-but-burst seam.
604 Fairview St.
Houston, TX 77006
If asked, the waiters will tell you all about the story of the four-legged Barnaby. In fact, the wait staff here will tell you pretty much anything. They'll talk your ear off if you let them.
It's a convivial atmosphere that stretches from the original cafe to its breakfast nook sibling. Baby Barnaby's is next door to Barnaby's, and though the service counter with coffee cups stacked high and deep at Baby Barnaby's says breakfast, some of the decor suggests more than waffle-house fare. Misled by this decor -- an energetic mingling of homemade metal sculpture, esoteric antique posters (one of an ape enjoying a liqueur) and the ever present Milk Bones shapes -- I asked the waiter a semi-serious food question: "What kind of bread do you use for the French toast?"
"Oh, we don't make it," he replied cheerfully. "It's like Aunt Jemima, already made up." Maybe so, though these eggy wedges didn't remind me of anything I'd found in my grocer's freezer. At Baby Barnaby's, they came warmed through and blanketed with cinnamon and sugar. As far as I was concerned, if the breakfast satisfied, whether it was doctored up prepackaged parts or made from scratch didn't matter.
Whatever its origins, the French toast had a wonderful texture -- soft as bread dough and with enough egg to suggest a custard flavor -- balanced by the crunch of its cinnamon-sugar coating. I enjoyed the whole gooey mess (probably grinning as foolishly as the liqueur-swilling chimp). I washed my breakfast down with bowl-sized cups of hot tea -- which the often more-friendly-than-efficient staff was quick to refill.
Afternoons and evenings, Barnaby's main room serves filling lunches and dinner with the same loopy flair that's shown at breakfast. The lunch and dinner menu may strike the unenlightened as a bland list with a handful of odd entries. But it's actually part of Barnaby's genius -- even the pickiest eater at a tableful of hungry folk can find something to choose. There's plenty for meat and potatoes folk, grilled salmon with brown rice for the heart-healthy sorts and plate vegetables or a meatless garden burger for the non-bloodletting crowd.
Beware though, when trying to guess which items are bland and which are interesting. The novel-sounding grilled lamb burger is all burger, the savory lamb smacked with a scorched carbon taste. The lamb sandwich contrasts the crunch of honest vegetables, wheels of tomato, onion and plain leaf lettuce, with the mouth-filling softness of meat and bread. The bun is bread that gives, and the ground lamb burger is not an imitation of the rubbery beef disc too common to drive-thrus; the patty is a well-cooked, well-textured piece of meat, as delicate as a good filet.
On the other hand, the spaghetti errs in trying to be different -- with, in this case, different meaning peppery. So there you are, thinking you've got the blandest, most school cafeteria-like item in the place; instead, the only flavor is pepper-hot.
In the eagerly retro zone, there are wholesome dishes. Newport chicken has a semifancy name on the menu, but on the plate this chicken is down-home. You get a moist, grilled chicken breast, topped with several slices of salty-sweet ham and a slab of white cheese. This isn't oven-baked until all the parts melt into a whole; this chicken is instead saddled with its accouterments, and one can pick them off for separate snacking or carefully load each forkful, like a kebab, with one layer of chicken, one layer of ham and one layer of cheese.
This might not be the sort of thing you'd serve at home to dinner guests, but it's honest food, and served with a heap of fries and a delightful side dish of soft, cinnamony diced apples. The apples, pale cubes in a translucent brown slime, look like some frightening school-lunch excuse for a fruit; they are, in fact, one of the best foods at Barnaby's. I don't know if they come from a can, and I don't care; these soft-as-slow-cooked bits of tangy apple stewed in buttery-cinnamon goo have all the right amounts of tart and sweet, and one day I'll shamelessly order a whole bowlful. It is comfort food of a high order.
And that, in fact, may explain why Barnaby's has become the institution it is. To me, the apples are comfort food; to the couple sitting nearby, the comfort food may be the Doctor Gale's meat loaf; to another, it could be the garden burger; to yet another, it could be the apple pie, served in a bowl like a cobbler with melting scoops of vanilla ice cream on top (if, that is, the waiter remembers you ordered it a la mode, something that can be a hit-or-miss affair). For one generation, one group, comfort may be found in the line at Luby's, with its predictable security, or at the Black-Eyed Pea, where what you get is what you expect. For the generation and group that's settled in the area that Barnaby's calls home, comfort is to be found in the curious mixed with the predictable, all produced in a casually offhand manner. The funky diner and its Baby Barnaby's spawn may not look like much to outsiders, but a steady crowd of Montrosians would be hard-pressed to imagine life without it. The food may not be great, in a culinary masterpiece way, but that's not the point. Great food exists to inspire delight and discussion; good food exists to inspire a sense of contentment, of relaxation. And in that context, Barnaby's inspires one simple, satisfied remark: "That was good."
Barnaby's Cafe, 604 Fairview, 522-0106.
Doctor Gale's meat loaf, $6.95;
Newport chicken, $7.50;
grilled salmon, $8.50;
lamb burger, $5.95;
meatless garden burger, $5.50