THE MERCURY CAFÉ
2936 13th Ave.
3.5 / 5
Reviewed June 2010
Let’s get one thing straight: the Mercury Café is not the reincarnation of the Quality Tea Room.
Well, except for one elusive pie. I’ll get to that in a minute.
There are plenty of present and former residents of the Cathedral neighbourhood, myself included, who still mourn the Quality, notwithstanding that the Crushed Grape, which replaced it (physically, that is), is a terrific bistro and a fine addition to the area.
Now along comes the Mercury Café which, in both menu and attitude, in some ways evokes the memory of the Quality.
The Mercury is a simple, unpretentious, low-cost and fun diner — exactly the kind of place Cathedral hasn’t had for the last five years or so, and has been sorely needing.
The food is… well, I’ll get to that in a minute, too. But I’m glad to see the Mercury’s arrival.
Ironically, the new café is housed in the space once occupied by Mullins Hardware, which, along with the Quality, constituted the heart of the old inner-city neighbourhood. That space hasn’t been lucky for restaurants — after Mullins closed its doors a few years ago, a coffee shop called Moe and Jeff’s and the vegetarian Beet Root went through it quickly — so let’s hope the Merc has more staying power. It ought to — it’s the work of Chris Plumb, who’s kept the wheels of the downtown Novia Café spinning quite nicely in recent years.
The Mercury is much like the Novia, without as much of the ’50s-style décor. There is a mild retro look to the place, with red leatherette booths, chrome stools and Arborite tables, but the Mercury’s best feature is the big windows overlooking 13th Ave., letting in plenty of light. What wall space there is is taken up by a couple of large photos of the neighbourhood from the ’40s (anybody remember Dee’s Billiards?), a Marilyn Monroe poster, a Coke ad, a close-up photo of a record on a turntable, and another of a chocolate shake. Not a single maudlin poster of Brando, James Dean or Elvis at the diner, thank goodness.
The place was an instant hit from the moment it opened its doors earlier this spring — on the first day, it literally ran out of food by mid-afternoon. In recent weeks, a patio has sprung up on the Robinson Street side, just in time for the warm weather.
Food is burger-and-fries simple. Seriously, burgers are the dinner menu’s staple, with eight variations on the theme, priced between $9 and $13, and all accompanied by either fries, soup or salad — it’s an extra two bucks to upgrade to poutine, onion rings or Caesar salad. They’re as good as they need to be and no better. (Ironically, you can get a far better hamburger, at about the same price, across the street at the Crushed Grape, where the ambiance is considerably more upscale.)
The Mercury also offers a range of standard sandwiches, including a well-built club, BLTs, grilled cheese, hot turkey, beef dip and a terrific steak, with caramelized onions, mushrooms and feta smothering a 5-ounce tenderloin, priced between $7 and $13.
Appetizers are limited to nachos, chicken fingers, riblets and a chip-and-dip concoction. There’s a couple of salads and a daily soup. Oh, and a few pint-sized meals for kids. There’s also a limited alcohol selection but the beverage emphasis is more on sweeter stuff like milkshakes, floats and bottled Coke, which is the only soft drink available. Go figure.
A few pies and cinnamon buns make up the dessert choices. I had a pedestrian lemon meringue — pretty good, nothing special. But here’s the funny thing: after I filed this review, I learned that the Mercury serves baking by the wizard behind the old Quality Tea Room’s amazing cottage cheese pie — a favourite treat I’ve sorely missed. Olga (Mercury staff insist she goes by one name, like Madonna) also makes a great custard/meringue called the Flapper. It’s a cruel fate indeed, or maybe just really bad luck, that a restaurant critic and one of his favourite desserts missed what should’ve been a glorious reunion. Romance is like that sometimes.
The second part of the Mercury’s equation is breakfast, served till 11 a.m. weekdays, and 4 p.m. on weekends, when there’s a brisk brunch trade.
I’m sorry to say that, despite the hype around the Mercury, I found breakfast here a little disappointing. Unlike most places that serve breakfast — including the Novia — there’s no low-priced special. The “traditional breakfast” — bacon or sausage or ham and eggs — is $8, with coffee another $2. Add tax and tip and the plate you’re pushing back with a satisfied sigh costs you $12, making it among the priciest breakfasts in town and almost twice what you’d spend at some places. It might be worth it if it was fabulous, but it’s pretty ordinary, with fairly plain thin-sliced fried potatoes (definitely not hash browns, as the menu proclaims), and standard-issue bacon.
There are several other breakfast items, including scramblers (word is the tofu scrambler’s very good), three-egg omelets, pancakes and French toast, all priced at $8 or $9, with coffee extra. Eggs Benedict ($9), available every morning, is especially popular on weekends.
The Mercury might be victim to its success. There’s a lot of pent-up demand in that neighbourhood which the Merc has clearly been hard-pressed to meet. I suspect some of the rough spots are temporary. In the meantime, I’m likely to visit again for a burger and a milkshake from time to time (sorry, I don’t do Coke). And I’ll definitely try one of those old Quality pies. I’ll take a pass on breakfast, though.
The Mercury Café is open every day but Monday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 7 to 10 Friday, 8 to 10 Saturday, 8 to 4 Sunday.