The newest member of Seattle’s cookie pantheon resides in the pastry case at Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry. Buckwheat flour, cocoa, and chocolate chips make for a confection even darker than Agent Cooper’s coffee. The center’s gooey; the edges crumble like a sable. Each bite somehow manages to taste like hurling yourself into a pool of chocolate, without being all that sweet.
Nobody’s grandma passed down this recipe. Crystal Chiu and Melissa Johnson tested three different brands of buckwheat flour before arriving on a favorite for this cookie (a stealth gluten-free achievement). But the texture, says Chiu, comes mostly from desiccated coconut.
Bakers tend to be perfectionists, but the duo that now powers this cornerstone kitchen rises a few levels beyond. Chiu’s a veteran of impressive restaurant pastry programs from Chicago to New York to Nashville. Johnson co-owned a bakery in the East Village. The two met at Canlis, where Johnson’s staff meal bagels impressed everyone enough to become their own popup during the 2020 shutdown.
After a pandemic-delayed ownership change and nine quiet months, Volunteer Park Cafe returned with these two at the helm, restoring neighborhood bonhomie and good coffee to the corner of 17th and Galer.
History repeats itself in weird ways. VPC as we know it began with two talented women. Fifteen years ago, Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt turned a former corner grocer with enormous front windows into a place for the neighborhood to eat. (Earnhardt defined the pastry side of things but departed five years later.) Plenty of restaurants aim, or claim, to be a gathering space; here customers actually enjoyed sitting at the communal table. VPC’s founders intended it as a neighborhood destination, but the banana brioche french toast and glass case filled with snickerdoodles and scones drew people from way beyond the surrounding residential blocks.
A weary Burke put the place up for sale in January 2020. New owner James DeSarno is an architect by day, cofounder of winery Freehand Cellars, and an advocate for preserving neighborhood businesses—the sort that sell coffee beans and cups of soup rather than whimsical ice cream flavors or celebrity-endorsed fried chicken sandwiches. In the kitchen, “I wanted someone who shared my vision,” he says. “But could also then take that ball without any need for direction or guidance from me.”
Watching a favorite restaurant come back under new owners is like seeing the movie adaptation of your favorite book—never an exact match with what’s in your brain. Johnson and Chiu ratcheted down the food menu to bring Canlis-level intention to the pastry case, and order to the tiny kitchen. The communal table now holds bottles of wine (Freehand Cellars, of course) and bags of pasta instead of diners: The “pantry” aspect of Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry is more tinned sardines than toilet paper rolls, but clearly selected by people who know food.
The case, and its contents, is VPC’s curriculum vitae—three levels of peach-walnut muffins, cunning individual galettes, and personal-size crumble cakes. its contents change often, but if there’s any of Johnson’s babka left behind the glass, seize upon it like an extra hour of sleep. Mercifully the kitchen bakes up new batches of that buckwheat chocolate chip cookie throughout the day, along with blondies and receontly some snickerdoodles made with hawaij, a Yemenite spice blend whose frequent comparisons to pumpkin spice do a great disservice to its ginger and cardamom charms.
Longtimers are still adjusting to life without a panini menu, but the rebooted VPC does have one sandwich, a delicate, decadent, steamy-hot breakfast ode to the delis on Johnson’s native Long Island. The kitchen spreads two eggs in a hot pan to cook thin as crepes, then folds the result into a packet around bacon and a slice of yellow American. Johnson bakes the poppyseed rolls herself. The whole thing drips with both cheese and nostalgia, even if your childhood happened nowhere near the Atlantic coast.
Otherwise, most of the menu involves toast. A few sweet versions slid off the menu since customers show up overwhelmingly for the Britannica-size Sea Wolf sourdough slice topped with pickled egg salad, classic avocado perked with za’atar, or seasonal creations like sardines laid across tomato jam. Squash on top of toast? Yes. Early fall’s tricolore Jenga game of roasted summer squash, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes heaped over whipped ricotta made an unexpected amount of sense.
The two muster their combined savory skills for the menu’s one seasonal soup and salad—two-part proof this little kitchen’s not just about boutique flour and desiccated coconut. Chiu’s biggest “we’re not at Canlis anymore” moment might be reverse engineering Johnson’s favorite Trader Joe’s roasted tomato and red pepper soup into a version for the fall menu. Hers involves fermented lime juice and a high-level culinary technique known as “burning the crap” out of the peppers.
Johnson’s readying matzo ball soup for colder days. Her sprinkling of deli odes is one of the nicest, most personal surprises of this new VPC: the pickled egg salad on toast. The babka. Maybe, one day, those bagels.