Breakfast Updates

Canlis Alums Fill the Pastry Case at the New Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry

As next chapters go, it's hard to imagine a better one for this cherished cornerstone of north Capitol Hill.

By Allecia Vermillion May 18, 2021

Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry: new windows, same familiar shade of yellow.

While plenty of cafes define themselves as a gathering space for the immediate community, a special energy radiates out of Volunteer Park Cafe. The indispensable breakfast haunt—originally a corner store circa 1904—closed last fall. A pair of Canlis alums with serious baking chops will soon revive it with a makeover, some fresh energy—and a ton of pastries.

Let’s back up. Previous owner Ericka Burke went looking for a new owner back in January 2020, before we knew just how rotten the year would prove to be. To nobody’s surprise, the tumult of a pandemic prolonged this process, but the handsome space at 17th and Galer now belongs to James DeSarno, a local architect (and winemaker) eager to preserve the 117-year-old building’s character, on both the structural and spiritual fronts.

The job post Melissa Johnson spotted soon after vibrated with kismet. When Volunteer Park Cafe went on the market, she was working as an expediter at Canlis; before that, she had co-owned a “teeny tiny hole in the wall bakery" back in New York. Upon seeing the listing last year, she joked with a few friends, omg, we need to buy it. Now here was DeSarno, looking for someone to run the slightly rechristened Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry.

A few months into her new gig plotting the cafe's rebirth, Johnson happened to have coffee with her former colleague Crystal Chiu. Canlis’s executive pastry chef, like so many others, saw her job upended in the name of the restaurant’s survival. Hearing about the plans got Chiu thinking. “I had been constantly moving and talking and doing for all of 2020,” she says. Chiu has a formidable background in restaurant pastry programs, from the Catbird Seat in Nashville to NYC’s Daniel, even working under former Seattleite Dana Cree at Blackbird in Chicago. Stepping back and learning about life in a bakery felt like a sanity-preserving next chapter.

The duo will make sure the huge glass pastry case overflows once again with cookies, cakes, tarts, and pies. Under Burke, Volunteer Park Cafe coaxed a full-on restaurant menu out of its tiny kitchen; now a smaller lineup will focus on breakfast and lunch. Housemade bread will underpin sweet and savory toasts. Chiu and Johnson promise egg and cheese sandwiches on poppyseed rolls, at least one seasonal soup and salad, and afternoon happy hour snacks—maybe a charcuterie board. Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry will pour beer and wine, and stock grocery essentials like milk and butter and eggs, plus sundries like greeting cards or aprons from regional makers.

The cafe’s new stewards want to shape their menu according to neighborly input, but Chiu’s thinking about a coconut cake she made for one of the Canlis at-home menus that proved a favorite, and a delicate take on strudel that met with Johnson’s approval.

Oh, and I totally buried the lede here: Johnson was the baker for the bagel shop Canlis set up at the edge of its parking lot—one of the first of its many storied pivots. Thus bagels will surface occasionally at the cafe. Johnson also wants to reinstate favorite recipes from the original Volunteer Park Cafe (customers are asking about those pear-cardamom muffins). “We want to have fun with it and change often,” she says. “But we don’t want people to come back and feel like it’s completely different.”

From afar, the yellow house on the corner appears unchanged. Come closer, though, and you can see DeSarno has updated the windows as part of some cosmetic and prosaic updates. The cafe will hopefully reopen in June. Instagram will let us know. Chiu also hopes to revisit her background in composed desserts, maybe team up with some industry friends to put on the occasional tasting menu–style sweets popup. "The pace and intensity at a restaurant is very specific," she says. "This lets me interact a little more with the people who are eating my food."

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