Sunday, January 17, 2010

Café des Artistes

A while ago I told all of you (three) readers out there that I wanted you to review one of your favorite little food shops, if you had one. Ma chére maman came through and wrote this lovely review of the Cafe des Artistes in my dear old hometown of Fallbrook, California. I'd like to add that I have some fond memories of this particular soda fountain, though I liked it better when it was part of the drugstore. I'm feeling in an old-timey mood and listening to a little Glenn Miller, Harry James, and Benny Goodman so this post is perfect:

I'm an aficionado of old-fashioned drugstore soda fountains, so imagine my pleasure (if you can) upon discovering, when we moved to Fallbrook back in the 1980s, the Historic soda fountain in Harrison's Rexall drugstore on Main Street. I read in some news article once that there were only two original soda fountains left in San Diego County (one in Fallbrook and one in Julian), and that the rest of them had been torn down or torn out when old stores were remodeled. I don't know if that's true, but I think I believe it because I haven't seen a lot of soda fountains around. Not that I frequent drugstores all that much, but I do look for soda fountains when I have the opportunity. Not only did I take my kids to Harrison's when they were younger so they could experience Ye Olde Slice of Americana, but we also went to the one in Julian a couple of times. (Incidentally, there's also a cool old soda fountain drugstore called Bulloch's on Main Street in Cedar City, UT, and I go there whenever I stop in town.) Well, I don't know how old the Historic soda fountain in Harrison's drugstore really was, because the Harrisons only moved their business there (from another Fallbrook location) in 1962. But it looked old (as compared to the Julian soda fountain, which looks Olde) and it looked cool in a retro way, with the counter and the swivel stools, and it was fun going there.

Sadly, the Harrisons closed their drugstore in 1995, and I think for a while there was some danger of the Historic soda fountain going the way of the rotary dial telephone, but eventually the building was split into two interconnecting parts, with the Fallbrook Art & Cultural Center taking up residence in the half fronting on Main Street, and a little eatery called Café des Artistes settling in the back, complete with Historic soda fountain. It is currently owned and/or operated by a guy named Michael who, I'm told, is from New York. The few times I've been in there and dealt directly with Michael, I've found him accomodating and efficient, but other people have told me he's rather brusque and sometimes borders on rude. I think maybe it's a case of easy-going Fallbrookians not being used to back east manners. In my opinion, it would be a problem only if Michael were a doctor.

The café now features what one reviewer calls a gourmet Mediterranean menu. I don't know about that, but I've had some really good soups and sandwiches and salads and desserts there. The selections are rather expensive, especially compared to the prices one paid back in the days of Rexall, but it's a good place to take a friend for better-than-average food in a casual atmosphere.

That being said, what I am looking for when I visit the soda fountain - or any soda fountain - is not just a slice of Americana, but a good chocolate ice cream soda made with chocolate ice cream. Ice cream sodas are becoming just about as rare as soda fountains, believe it or not. Coldstone doesn't make them. Baskin-Robbins used to, but stopped a number of years ago. There used to be a chain of Betsy Ross Ice Cream Shoppes where they made them, too, but that's no longer around. It's kind of a sad day for the ice cream soda.

I'm a connoisseur of chocolate ice cream sodas made with chocolate ice cream. It's been decades since I first started requesting that kind of soda, but I think I got the idea from a 1940s article on the actress Ginger Rogers, who loved ice cream so much she had her own soda fountain in her house. Whatever the source of my inspiration, I learned early on that you have to be very specific or you don't get what you want. First, you have to say "chocolate ice cream soda", not just chocolate soda. Because a chocolate soda is just that: soda water and chocolate syrup. Then, you have to specify "with chocolate ice cream", because a chocolate ice cream soda generally means soda, chocolate syrup, and vanilla ice cream. There were a few occasions when I sadly had to eat the less than satisfactory results of my communicative errors, and subsequent other occasions when the soda jerk sadly had to take back the mistakes he or she tried to foist on me and start over again, paying better attention to my specific wording. (The worst soda I ever had was at a Baskin-Robbins in England, when the soda jerk - or in this case, just the jerk - either didn't know the first thing about sodas or was extraordinarily forgetful. At any rate, he didn't include any syrup, so what I got was basically a soda water float. Blecchh! England: great fish and chips, but not the place to buy classically American food, like hot dogs and ice cream sodas.)

So how does Michael at the Café des Artistes measure up in the ice cream soda department? Very well indeed. Utilizing the Historic soda fountain, the drinks are made the old-fashioned way, where flavors are hand-mixed (or, more accurately, spoon-stirred) with the soda water. And Michael has a sure touch when it comes to the proper ratio of soda water and syrup to ice cream. I can tell, because there's a moment when the ice cream begins to dissolve into the soda water but is still cold enough that the soda water makes a thin layer of ice over the ice cream, so that the ice cream in your mouth is creamy and ice-crystal-crisp all at once, and very chocolatey. Yum.

The Café des Artistes is a casual, intimate, slightly uncomfortable (depending on your reaction to the proprietor) place with better food than a lot of similar places in town and excellent fountain products. The café is decorated with work by local artists, plus it has this bizarre (because it is awful yet at the same time fascinating) mural of famous artists hanging out together. You can try and figure out which artists are depicted while you eat your lunch. Another non-food feature of the café is that they sometimes feature live music, and one of the local writers' groups sometimes holds public readings and book signings there. But the real reason to go there is the chocolate ice cream soda made with chocolate ice cream. So, if you visit Fallbrook, don't miss the Café.

P.S. The Café des Artistes is right next door to The Bottom Shelf, the best bargain used bookstore in the county.


Once again, please feel free to send me any exciting recipes you've tried or reviews of independent food places you enjoyed!


Jared and Megan said...

mmmm... I want a chocolate ice cream soda (with chocolate ice cream) right now! I wish there was a place around here that I could go to get one.

Shannon said...

you could go to cedar city!
really, though, I'm sure there's a soda fountain in salt lake or something.