Restaurant review: Gypsy Cafe offers comfort on the road
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.
The Gypsy name, Hall explains, comes from her mother, who was adopted and never knew her cultural roots. Hall is an avid traveler, as well, leading to her eclectic menu that hopscotches from a hefty beef burger ($11), to an excellent Asian salad mounded with an entire grilled chicken breast, fried won ton wafers, toasted almonds and pickled ginger rosettes all tossed in sweet, sesame vinaigrette ($12.50).
Breakfast, served all day, is equally thoughtful, saluting different parts of the globe with signatures like the “house stack” of fat, crisp-topped potato cake mounded with housemade chorizo, two eggs, avocado and chive cream alongside sourdough toast ($12). I get the eggs poached, so the golden yolks floods into the dish when I pierce them with my fork.
I also dig into crunchy-crust chicken fried steak, partnered with potato cake, two sunny side-up eggs, sourdough toast and an ocean of gravy ($14). Do I want sausage gravy or mushroom leek gravy, my server asks, and she doesn’t blink when I request half-and-half. The sausage style is thick and creamy, while the mushroom leek is silkier and earthy.
It’s usually pretty loud here, and the din amps up for Friday dinners, when bands play. The musical acts include Americana singer Craig Corona (John Denver classics), Flamenco guitarist David Jenkins and Americana/Cajun crooners Karen Joy Brown of The Bootleg Honeys with her guitarist/husband Dave Silva.
On a recent evening, service was painfully slow, but that’s just how it is with such a little kitchen, cranking out pleasant sashimi won ton shell tacos dressed with mango jicama salsa and wasabi cream ($11), and good, Rocky fried chicken lounging alongside mashed potatoes, lemon peppercorn gravy and garlic braised greens ($18).
For dessert, if beignets are available, get them. The powdered sugar-dusted bites show up as specials and sometimes on the brunch menu ($5), and are fresh and puffy, just as we’d expect from homemade.
Things are getting a bit fancier these days, it’s true. Just a month ago, Hall added session cocktails to the brief wine and beer list, showcasing house-crafted fruit shrubs and Han Korean barley-rice vodkas for quaffs like the West County of vodka, Carpano Antica vermouth, Peychaud’s Bitters and Luxardo cherry ($10).
Still, Gypsy is staying true to its small town soul, and we know, no matter how busy the place is getting, there is always more of that sumptuous pork and beans simmering for us on the stove.
Carey Sweet is a Santa Rosa-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.