Tiny downtown Sebastopol was hopping on a recent Wednesday afternoon, with traffic creeping past the Barlow and through the Highway 12-Petaluma Avenue junction. I drove around the Lilliputian Central Park onto Main Street, scanning for a parking space near Gypsy Café.
Inside, the comfort food bistro was humming, with nearly each of the five dozen table and bar seats occupied. It was impressive activity for a late lunch, and it’s usually just as busy here through breakfast, weekend brunch and the dinners hosted only on Friday nights.
It’s obvious that since owner Shawn Hall debuted this friendly, no-fuss-fare destination in September 2011, the café has been a locals’ favorite. Dinner demands reservations, and most weekends, you’ll need to put your name on the daytime waiting list.
Part of the charm is the décor. Hall also owns Shawn E. Hall Designs, a Santa Rosa-based interior design company specializing in restaurants and wineries. You’ve seen her work at Mateo’s Cocina Latina, Costeaux French Bakery, Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar and Sbragia Family Vineyards, among other fashionable Sonoma County spots.
She transformed the former bare-bones Pine Cone Café into a chic eatery snug with brick walls hung with ornate mirrors, colorful abstract art and an antique Nehi Beverages sign over the peek-a-boo kitchen window. A polished wood bar is set with cascades of fresh flowers, the ceiling sports striped umbrellas that somehow make me think of flying, and a whimsical Mark Twain Court hotel “Vacancy” sign acts as a partial divider between the bar and the front dining room.
Then, there’s the food — delicious, filling and as soothing as a hug. Add in reasonable prices and high-end ingredients, and it’s no wonder it’s a hit.
As I write this, I’m eating leftover pork and beans ($13), and already thinking about the next time I’ll visit Gypsy for more. Chef German Bacho braises the pork shoulder to fork tenderness, bathing it in savory natural jus with bitterish garlic greens, Rancho Gordo yellow eye heirloom beans and curls of soft yellow onion with just a touch of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a hint of underlying sweetness.
Like all Gypsy dishes, the portion is ample — I always pack out a box. That means two meals for me with the pot roast ($13), too, nearly a soup with so much rich tomato and wine broth submerging the somewhat chewy braised chuck roast, potatoes, carrot, onion and celery.
Rounding it out is a big slab of firm polenta, seared golden on top, a bit like cornbread laced with lots of Parmesan.
Hall tells me later that these two dishes are best sellers because they are “healthy, pure protein and veggie, and gluten-free,” though I’m in it just for their fine flavors. Tostadas fit that bill, too, layering pork, chicken or vegetables with heirloom black beans, shaved cabbage, pepita chimichurri, chive cream and sweet-tart pickled onion on two crisp, housemade, gluten-free sopes ($12.50).
For more of that good-for-us protein, I add tofu ($3) to a roasted beet salad ($12), in a pretty presentation of baby spinach, arugula, roasted beets, candied walnuts, shaved onion, goat cheese and sherry vinaigrette.
One of my companions, meanwhile, focuses on the lentil-veggie burger ($12), the patty thick and moist enough under romesco sauce, pickled onion, leaf lettuce and toasted almonds on a potato onion bun alongside a pile of crisp fries that threaten to spill over the plate.
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