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These days, if "real estate" and "restaurants" are in the same sentence, it's probably not an optimistic one. All around the Valley, the limping economy has amounted to closures, canceled projects, and indefinitely postponed openings.
But not all the casualties came about because of the real estate crash. Some of last year's ill-timed closures actually resulted from the boom, even though it had long since gone bust. Two such victims were located in the very same plaza, a tiny cluster on Camelback Road just west of 44th Street where tenants couldn't renew their leases because the property owner planned to raze the buildings for a luxury high-rise.
Last summer, Daniel's Italian Cuisine was the first to go. A few months later, the shoebox-sized Kohnie's coffee shop was shuttered as well. Somehow Havana Café managed to keep its doors open, but time appeared to be running out. You didn't have to live in Arcadia to mourn the seemingly imminent loss of this charming nook, a low-slung remnant of vintage Phoenix that's all too scarce along the Camelback Corridor.
4225 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Region: East Phoenix
By November, though, the development plans were shelved, and the former Kohnie's spot was up for lease again. Turns out, the timing was perfect for Polly Levine and Marilena Sacks, two friends who'd hoped to open a cafe in Scottsdale. When their original location ended up in limbo (yeah, blame it on the economy), they signed a two-year lease on the Phoenix space and opened Chestnut Lane Café at the beginning of this year.
If you're looking for a bright spot amid gloomy times, swing by this cheerful sandwich and pastry shop the next time you're in the neighborhood.
It's a mellow hangout, the kind of place that makes me glad for Arizona's endless sunny days. While there's no patio, per se, there is a handful of outdoor tables. Just inside the front door, the register is flanked by a case full of salads on one side and a lavish display of pastries (behind glass, just out of reach) on the other. Specials are written on a roll of brown butcher paper hanging next to the kitchen door. There's modest counter seating around the other half of the bright-white space, and a large metal communal table in the next room, surrounded by vintage metal chairs. Décor is limited to some rectangular glass flower vases tied with orange grosgrain ribbons, and a row of cookie-filled jars along the window.
Chestnut Lane Café is Levine and Sacks' first restaurant. Levine tells me that neither of them had a culinary background, only a lifelong interest in food.
"I've been reading Bon Appetit and Gourmet since I was 14 — you know, when other people were reading Seventeen and Cosmo," she says.
The simple, wholesome food here is a combination of old-fashioned dishes like chicken salad and vanilla layer cake along with pastries such as pannetone, biscotti, and baci di dama cookies. Levine credits her grandmother for inspiration, while Sacks, a native of Puglia, Italy, was influenced by her European upbringing.
Nicely prepared lattes are made with coffee from Espressions, a local roaster. Top-notch breads come from MJ Bread, one of Phoenix's most celebrated bakeries. And beyond that, pretty much everything else at Chestnut Lane is made from scratch, from the lemonade to the roasted turkey. Levine also mentions that she gets her organic local produce from McClendon Farms.
This place opens early in the morning, but don't look for a savory breakfast menu. Instead, there's a rotating selection of daily-made baked goods that go perfectly with a cup o' joe.
I loved the chocolate chip cookies they had one day. These babies had clearly just come out of the oven an hour earlier, as the chocolate was still gooey. Lemon meringue bars were creamy and sweet-tart, a nice a.m. eye opener. Soft, moist blueberry and tangelo scones, drizzled with a light glaze, were delicious, too — not as doughy as what Kohnie's used to serve, but a little more on the cake-y side.
And every time I visit Chestnut Lane Café, I keep an eye out for a wonderful rustic tart they had a couple of months ago. It had a sweet, thin crust folded up around a gooey heap of plump baked blueberries — the kind of dessert that makes me a little sad to finish the last bite.
Besides chicken soup, which is always available, Chestnut Lane offers a different vegetarian soup every day. I appreciated the mix of ingredients in the vegetable soup I ordered one afternoon (potatoes, carrots, green beans, white beans, tomatoes, and zucchini), but it was still surprisingly bland. Salt and pepper would've been a big help.
The grilled cheese was a dud, too, neither big enough nor interesting enough to merit its nearly $7 price (and I was still hungry after I ate it). That's not to say I won't shell out a few bucks for a good sammy, and to be sure, I liked the other creations I tried. They did a decent chicken salad, made with moist Amish chicken breast, and a tasty tuna melt, with chunky albacore salad, ripe tomato slices, and a layer of melted cheddar tucked into a crisp, golden baguette. The baguette was what made it.
Better yet was the tender Niman Ranch corned beef Reuben, with homemade sweet pickles, sweet onions, Guinness whole grain mustard, melted Fontina, and marbled rye bread. The turkey BLT was another winner, layered with thick applewood-smoked bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, and ripe avocado. Again, the bread took this sandwich over the top; in this case, it was soft, fragrant multigrain with a great crust.
Side dishes, sold à la carte, were simple and homey— think roasted vegetables, fruit salad, and farro with green beans and crimini mushrooms. And salads, available in half and whole portions, were satisfying on their own. I loved the big, meaty chunks of lobster on the Cobb salad, and the sheer variety of ingredients in the chopped salad, a balsamic-tinged jumble of roasted chicken, tomatoes, corn, cucumber, avocado, feta cheese, and butter lettuce, with pumpkin seeds for added crunch. Even the basic mixed greens salad was good, brightened with orange slices and balsamic vinaigrette, with candied walnuts and shavings of Parmegiano-Reggiano scattered on top.
Chestnut Lane Café serves simple food for complicated times. Until I started coming here, I had no idea how much I'd craved it.