The City of Trees was—and still is—saturated with burger-and-brew joints, but in the last few years, a smart crop of restaurateurs has diversified and upscaled the game, and the commentary has turned to "restaurant concepts" and "dining experiences," spiffy terms that point to the aspirational, value-added qualities of going out to eat. Somewhere between taco-fusion spots on Eighth Street and third-wave coffee bars, A Cafe, which has had its roll-up door open since the weekend of July 18, is comparatively bereft of abstractions.
"People used to say, 'Oh, you're opening a restaurant,' and I'd say, 'No, we're opening a cafe,'" Owner Ashley Syms about how the cafe got its name.
True, walking into A Cafe one will notice such contemporary staples as white-tile wall work, a Spartan logo (it's just a huge, Times New Roman lower-case A), a pale stonework counter and other hallmarks of the stripped-down look that's so hot right now, but the language of that aesthetic seems secondary to Syms. It's the same with the food. There's avocado toast on the menu and specials written on butcher paper above the register, but nothing on the menu or the walls is overthought or under-executed, and that's refreshing.
- Harrison Berry
Go extra with the avocado toast. The special, complete with a 6-minute egg (which costs more), came with creamy avocado, an appropriately salty seasoning and cherry tomatoes that are acidic and taste like sunshine. Two slices go for $9.50, make for a perfect lunch that won't leave diners hungry or drowsy, and are worth every penny. The toast itself, from Acme, is fluffy, crusty and holds together, but isn't particularly toasted. Having vegetarian options on the menu, Syms said, is important when it comes to attracting customers on plant-based diets, but also adds items that are less heavy than meaty fare.
"Just having those options—they're just a little bit lighter, too," Syms said.
The BLT ($9, comes with a side salad) likewise holds the middle ground between lightness and substance. Again turtle-shelled between slices of Acme bread, the named ingredients are bound by a swipe of mayo, which barely adds to the salt from the bacon and brings out the flavors of lettuce and tomato. The side salad is chiefly arugula, parmesan and a light oil dressing.
What flair there is on the menu has a story behind it. That's the case with the shrub soda ($3.50), which has strawberry, hibiscus and jalapeno notes. This fiery, rouge-tinted beverage was inspired by the Babymaker, a cocktail served at Comida in Denver, Colorado, where Syms used to work with A Cafe's current manager, Katrina Cozadd. The sipper is a nod to what is clearly a strong personal and professional relationship.
Syms is a Boise boomerang. A Capital High School graduate, she left for the University of Colorado-Boulder and jettied between the Rocky Mountain State and Boise, working food service jobs at Protos Pizza in BoDo and various places in Colorado. She returned to Boise in spring 2017 with an eye toward opening her own shop.
"People tell me I have a talent for putting together spaces," she said. "This is a lot like my home."
It's true, much of what decoration there is comes directly from Syms' house; but to the point, Syms approached A Cafe in spatial terms, and the effect is that it feels, with its high ceilings and above-the-dining-area shelving, much like eating with the cooks at their own wooden table. (Nota bene: The large wooden table near the garage-style door at A Cafe was made by Cozadd's brother.) Intimacy and eaters feeling like they're adjacent to food preparation were important elements of Syms' vision. The most sun-lit and social seats are at the front of the cafe near the sidewalk, while the warmest, most conversation-friendly seats are at a counter between the register and the kitchen.
"It's meant to be modern and clean, but homey as well," she said.
For the future, A Cafe has in store stronger connections with the Boise Farmers Market and the raised profile of organic ingredients in what it makes. Beer, wine and cider will eventually make their debuts. Otherwise, there's little in the way of a 5-year plan—and that, too, is refreshing.
"It will always be about keeping things simple and familiar," Syms said. "I'm going to let Boise guide us."