Cafe Reviews

Alice in Cafeland

It's hot. And sticky. It's the time of year where the only appealing recreation is to curl up in a ball in a dark corner and mutter about how Mother Nature is tormenting us with her radiance set at full blast.

This is the time of year that makes dining out difficult.

People don't have ravenous appetites, and even if they do, it's a tough call on whether it's worth it to drag their sweaty selves to a restaurant. It's sometimes too much to consider, donning oven mitts just to touch the steering wheel of a car. So many restaurants across the Valley close for lunch and on some nights for dinner. It's best to call ahead.

Cafe Ted is operating under such summer hours. Sometimes it's open all day through dinner. On other days, it sighs sleepily and puts its kitchen to bed after an early lunch. Staff says it opens at 7 a.m.; but a phone message tells me 8 a.m. Dinner ends at 7 p.m. in winter months, although sometimes it stretches to 9 p.m. For now, dinner service is Thursday and Friday nights only. Regardless, the evening menu changes each week.

For structured souls, such a schedule is frustrating. But for vagabonds like me, the hunt is part of the fun. Will Ted's be open? Don't know. Will my favorite dish be on the dinner menu? Don't know. But will the meal be great? This I know: It will be.

I'll put up with the caprices because Scottsdale's new Cafe Ted is one of those tiny treasures that realizes personality can be as important as good food. You can't eat ambiance. Or can you? Certainly I know the stunning decor of Cafe Ted makes already admirable food taste even better. Handcrafted dishes coupled with the decor culminate in an experience that makes navigating even the most shimmering, solar summer assault seem like a privilege.

The menu at this bistro is a creative offering of upscale American favorites, boutique wines and an endless number of flavored espressos. Recipes are light, making them perfect for hot-weather nibbling. The furnishings are the work of Sticks, an Iowa-based design shop owned by Sarah Grant-Hutchinson, an artist who found fame when asked to design a wooden nativity for Better Homes & Gardens.

Mostly restaurant, part coffee bar, a smidgen of wine bistro, a dash of art gallery and a lot of furniture store, Cafe Ted has hit upon a concept that's so pleasant it's a little surprising that it hasn't been franchised even in the seven months it's been open. Thank goodness. These ideas only work when they're parented by a loving, living private owner.

After all, while a restaurant's wont supposedly is to produce the best food possible, reality says that most diners can be seduced by a tramp eatery's fluttering lashes and curvaceous bump. Chain owners know it: delectable eye candy is known to make even the most mediocre meals acceptable.

But Cafe Ted doesn't rely on its good looks to charm its customers. Under the ownership of Nina Dorman and namesake Ted Rice, the bistro focuses on homemade, organic cuisine.

Rice has selected an off-the-path location to showcase his dream -- a cozy trio of shops hidden in the courtyard that's overshadowed by the culinary monument Michael's at the Citadel. There's a courtyard behind Michael's, lush with plants and ponds, framing moody tinted windows hiding a yoga center and a real estate company. Yet there is no sign that I've found the restaurant until my nose is pressed against Ted's front glass windows. I've hunted it down by following the slinky aromas of freshly baked muffins, Italian coffees and homemade cinnamon coffee cake.

It's an interesting layout. The setup includes a front-room bar and casual bistro seating; the second space a more formal dining area and curio shop; and the third room features a furniture boutique. It's hard to resist the cheerful, Mad Hatter surroundings. Alice must have tripped into a rabbit hole like this, all crazy wood-burned chairs and tables, psycho-splashed with bright paints and inspirational sayings like "love animals." Whimsical tables do double duty as madcap cribbage or chess boards, while seating is on chairs dressed as abstract characters or as bed frames. Checkerboard silk drapes frame the windows and the energetic art on the walls is from the collection of Scottsdale's Suzanne Brown Galleries. For those guilty about indulging in this much luxury, there is a full-size, hand-carved confessional in the corner. The pieces come with price tags and diners who see something they like among the tromp l'oeil painted walls (and who have healthy wallets) can take it home.

But most of all, I like Cafe Ted's approach to food. Despite the contemporary theme, there's no preachy, aren't-we-clever message built in. Ted even allows substitutions to his cooking, as in a breakfast entree of eggs your way, "whatever floats your boat, garnished lavishly with mushrooms or tomatoes."

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet