Garden Café – Bad Name, Good Food


GardenCafeOn the surface, everything seems to be working against the Garden Café. Let’s start with the name. Could it be any more generic? It’s like having a dog and naming it Spot. Surely, there were better choices than that. Then there’s the location, a tired commercial stretch of Woodman Avenue between Ventura and Moorpark that’s bound by an auto repair shop and some place catering to parakeet aficionados.

Not exactly restaurant row, and not the best way to whet an appetite.

But then you step through the entrance and find yourself transported. There’s a large, shaded patio with limestone tiles, gurgling fountains and comfortable seating. The red umbrellas that attend each table are festive. The music is just loud enough to silence the street noise without being intrusive. And damn if the façade doesn’t look downright classy, with its softly weathered tan walls and craftsman lights.

So this is the Garden Café. Maybe the name doesn’t matter so much, after all.

There are people at virtually every table on the patio, mostly families and small gatherings of friends. A young couple snuggles at the corner table near the door. Inside, the scene is bustling. Waiters weave through the narrow passages separating the tables. There’s a counter filled with pastries and behind that, an open kitchen.

The secret is out, if it was ever a secret to begin with. Sherman Oaks has a new hot spot and it’s exactly the kind of place that SFV dwellers tend to like: casual, friendly, and easy on the wallet, with food that’s very well prepared but not too challenging.

Take the starters, as most tables are doing. You can get a big plate of sweet potato fries for 5 bucks, or the truffle variety for a dollar more. They’re crunchy and satisfying, especially with the restaurant’s aioli. It’s the little things that count. The Chinese chicken salad looks standard issue, but the lettuce is exceptionally fresh and the dressing tastes homemade. Ditto for the Cesar salad. It’s not like you won’t find it everywhere, but it’s clear that some loving care has gone into the dishes.

The sandwiches come on a thick-toasted bread that leaves you longing for more, whether you opt for the pastrami, the grilled cheese or the smoked salmon. I was tempted to ask where the bread was from, but why spoil the mystery? There’s also a fresh-ground burger and a roasted turkey club that tastes like mom made it.

Lots of people order the wood-fired pizza, and for good reason. It’s a thin-crusted version with your choice of everything from five-cheese to forest mushroom and short rib. The short rib is the shining star, thanks to its rich, slow simmered beef. Melted cheese on toasted bread with a topping of tender short rib? Yes, please.

Everything in the main course category costs $12 to $16.

They serve more formal entrees, too, but why bother? The roasted chicken kabobs and Atlantic salmon seem like after-thoughts designed to accommodate people interested in a more formal dinging experience, which the Garden Café is not about.

What it is about is simple pleasures. Neighborhood joints like this serve a serious purpose. They’re community gathering spots that promise no pressure and nothing too fancy. Service is a little slow, but friendly. They assume you’re in no hurry.

And why should you be.  Have another beer and try those sweet potato fries.

Come for: The fries, the sandwiches and the pizza.

Stay for: The friendly vibe and the nice patio

Forget about: The latest foodie craze. 

The Garden Café, 4351 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks