Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
This isn't technically a first bite, or a second, or even a 12th bite. I admit, I'm a Cape Fear regular. One of this restaurant's beauties is that it can be many things at many times to many people. The tourists love that it pops out of nowhere on the way to Jenner, offering Southern-kissed Californian food pleasing to a citizen of anywhere. Locals love the comforting flavors and the welcoming atmosphere: a peaceful, window-lined room, with walls filled with local art and carved African masks.
I've gone to dinner there after canoeing from Monte Rio to Casini Ranch, and was treated to a feast befitting the valor of such an adventure (Carolina chicken with prosciutto, fontina and pecans in bourbon cream, $18.50; and roasted pork tenderloin in Jim's mahogany sauce, $20). I've brunched there (Jonesboro Benedict: caponata and fontina with hollandaise over poached eggs on black pepper grits, $9.95; Hangtown fry: pan-seared cornmeal oysters, country sausage and green onion in parmesan scrambled eggs, $12.95) after visiting "our" Cadenasso, a painting we cannot afford to own but consider ours anyway, despite its actually belonging to the Christopher Queen Gallery, one of many quaint shops arrayed along the Duncan's Mill town center. Those brunches succeeded in making us feel like art owners; that is, aesthetically privileged.
When our daughter was a baby, we laid out a blanket for her on the carpet and enjoyed some stolen moments of quiet intimacy (house-smoked salmon and ricotta tortellini with spinach, cracked black pepper and Romano cream, $14.95; Cape Fear pink chowder, a mélange of clams, potato, onion, celery and cream, blushing with tomato, $7.50).
During our most recent visit, I was in such a crappy mood, I was ready to find fault with anything. So when we'd been seated on the beautiful rose- and jasmine-framed patio, which normally I find so charming, and the drink machine went nutso with loud rhythmic exclamations issuing from it, my tension and irritation built into something concrete. "What the hell is that?" I asked, leaping to my feet. Our waiter squeezed the last gusts of air out of the drink gun like a cavalier deputy, silencing the raging machine, then blew smoke from its end. Peace was restored to the land, and our good food arrived.
I thought about how much of any experience, whether it's dining or traveling—or marriage, for that matter—depends upon one's mood when appraising it, although little is said in reviews about that. Doug ate his roast beef and Boursin sandwich ($9.95), the last one to be had, while the folks at the next table admitted their deep envy. I forked into my Thai ginger chicken salad ($11.95), nursing the aforementioned snit, when a wave of—I'm not going to call it well-being because that would be overstatement; it was closer to forgiveness—swept over me. So maybe Cape Fear Cafe is that: a place you go no matter what your mood, like the home of a close friend, because you're welcome there, whether celebratory or fuming, savoring each bite or shoveling the food in. The good tastes and calming atmosphere may not save you from your own foulness, but they do remind you of better times.
Cape Fear Cafe, 25191 Hwy. 116, Duncan's Mills. Open daily for lunch and dinner; brunch, Saturday&–Sunday. Closed daily from 2:30pm to 5pm. 707.865.9246.