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Frisky Pair Owners Burke and Earnhardt keep up a girlish banter, but they’re consummate pros.

RECENTLY, IN THE space of a single week, I bumped into my kindergarten teacher, learned an acquaintance of mine once lived with my cousin, bought an auction item donated by the same guy who bought one I donated to a different auction—and discovered the Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace. Seattle may have stepped up onto the world stage, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a small town.

The café occupies the residential corner of 17th and Galer, two blocks from the park, in the airy, high-ceilinged, circa 1905 space renowned for being the longest- operating market in Seattle. In its previous incarnation, the café became locally infamous when its owners hung a portrait of Mussolini and began broadcasting political views never before heard on Capitol Hill. Soon enough the place was on the market, and a couple of young friends named Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt had a decision to make. The pair had dreamed of a place of their own since meeting at the Greenwood vegetarian restaurant Carmelita, where Burke was the chef and Earnhardt a server. But Burke hesitated: Wasn’t the place too buried in its neighborhood, too far off the main drag? How would they snag diners?

Two months later the space was still for sale, and Earnhardt prodded Burke to go back for another look. “Suddenly—I got it!” Burke recalled breathlessly. “This could be the cornerstone of the neighborhood, the meeting-and-greeting place!” Flash to the present, six months into its new life as Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace, and the space functions as, whaddya know, the cornerstone of the neighborhood, the meeting-and-greeting place.

Even the golden retrievers tied out front seemed to be dishing convivially as I walked in one weekend morning. Sun streamed in through ceiling-high windows, spotlighting flour-sack-topped tables and mismatched chairs. To one side, the fresh case brimmed with pear-cardamom and banana-blueberry muffins; rosemary-parmesan and lemon-blueberry scones; chocolate bundt cakes and chunky chocolate brownies and extra nutty peanut butter cookies—the kind that glue your mouth shut and roll your eyes to the back of your head. In the back a refrigerated case held beer and wine under a vintage “Groceries” sign. A tag by the register read “Strawberry Lemonade.” Gillian Welch and Patsy Cline traded off on the sound system. If there is a lazy corner café on the way to the swimming hole in Buford, Georgia, it looks exactly like this.

But the urban version’s more diverse. A young mom and dad clutched toddlers and little tubs of applesauce. A tableful of aging hippies paged through The New York Times, no doubt grateful not to be doing it under the gaze of Il Duce. A couple of pairs of young lovers—one gay, one straight—sported bed-hair and locked starry eyes. A flock of North Capitol Hill matrons, dressed for their morning constitutional, klatched around a big table. And at least one neighbor who appeared to know them all skittered from group to group like a caffeinated hummingbird.

In short, a representative sampling of the motley crew that mixes daily across the Hill—bumping elbows and shoulders as they stand in line to order, pay at the register, jockey for a table, grab silverware, carry their food to their seats, then bus their dishes. It’s cheerful chaos, held together with pokey service. Friendly, yes—but so leisurely, so ill-equipped for the legions, I aged considerably while waiting for the latte I requested with my pear-cardamom muffin. In later visits this would become a pattern, with unswabbed tables and orders that may well have been routed through Buford, Georgia.

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But let’s get back to that pear-cardamom muffin. Dewy with fresh fruit, softly crusted up top, whispering its cardamom—it was perfect. I mean just-one-more perfect. All-is-forgiven perfect. I-still-don’t-have-my-latte-but-who-needs-coffee-anyway perfect.

And performance was all uphill from here, as subsequent months found me overresearching in earnest. Baked goods, which almost all come from Earnhardt, have been uniformly right: the chocolate cakes rich and fathomless, the biscuits (for a towering strawberry shortcake dessert) dense and sugar-crusted. The exception to the home-baked rule is Le Fournil’s almond croissants—the pastry every pastry chef ought to order out for.

One particularly memorable breakfast visit ended after lunch. It’s that kind of place. All morning we feasted on apple-brie croissants—sheer decadence drizzled with lavender honey—and brioche French toast, in which plump slices of the gilded bread arrive stuffed with ricotta and vanilla bean custard, and decorated with caramelized banana chunks encrusted with cinnamon sugar and roasted walnuts. The result was like a danish, to the power of 10.

We took a little breather—talked to friends, read the paper—before launching into lunch, its savories the province of Burke. We sampled organic salads: a well-populated chop salad where the usual suspects were moistened with sweeter-than-usual basil vinaigrette, a crunchy-fresh chicken-apple salad whose creamy herb dressing recalled the tarragon-kissed classic at seminal takeout café Gretchen’s Of Course. The mushroom tart featured roasted cherry tomatoes, caramelized onions, and the mushrooms on a handkerchief of flaky phyllo, the whole scattered with fresh arugula. A Caprese panino was all long strings of mozzarella on craggy well-oiled peasant bread, with tart oven-roasted tomatoes providing the friskiness and basil aioli supplying the swoon.

Frisky and swoony could, for that matter, describe Burke and Earnhardt. As they joshed with regulars and sustained a girlish banter between themselves, at one point admiring one another’s T-shirts behind the counter, I wondered if anyone had ever underestimated these pros. What a mistake, for their kitchen brings intention and care down to the crumb level. Call it comfort food for the 21st century. Burke’s macaroni and cheese was a velveteen masterpiece of gruyère, white cheddar, and fontina. Her potpie placed a buttery roof atop a ramekin of, that day, lamb shank, braised so long and so tenderly its threads became the sauce, along with vegetables and sweet, firm red bliss potatoes.

We were finally, urp, finished. Had they been open for dinner we would have stayed for that too. So when they began dinner service in May, adding pizzas and a whole new set of sophisticated starters, we wondered how they’d heard us.

Such are its folksy charms. The Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace represents a gentle revisit to small-town Seattle. Savoring my pear-cardamom muffin and latte—it finally arrived—I realized that this place is the spiritual successor to Surrogate Hostess, the dessert-and-coffee-all-day lunch spot that a couple of decades ago functioned as communal parlor for North Capitol Hill. Remember the laid-back vibe, the masterful quiche, the fact that everyone was there? Now, thanks to this bright newcomer, you don’t even have to have been there to remember it.

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This article appeared in the July 2007 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.