It’s 7 a.m. You’re rushing, always rushing. Must get out the door by 7:15. Your travel mug of coffee is ready, and after a quick scan of the fridge for salvageable leftovers, you abandon any hope of brown-bagging it.
Rather than slog through the day without sustenance, you’ll have to squeeze in a quick lunch run for something — anything. Good thing Cafe at Pharr stands ready to offer you a fast dine-in or grab-and-go lunch. The restaurant even opens its doors early in the morning for folks to snag salads or sandwiches to stow in the office fridge.
Cafe at Pharr opened in 1993 as a bakery, selling an array of cakes and pastries. The Pharr Road location proved to be a bit of a gaffe given that it was located next door to a Pepperidge Farm retail outlet. The heavy competition forced owners Mike and Shirley Liu to quickly modify the bakery concept, adding lunch options, like its signature chicken salad.
Even though they resisted transitioning to a cafe, the Lius watched their business grow over the next few years as Buckhead embraced the model. While still baking breads in-house, the restaurant, now run by son Johnny Liu, has increased its lunch offerings and reduced its baked goods to a few quick-grab items like cookies and Rice Krispy treats.
Today Cafe at Pharr has five locations throughout the metro area, with a sixth opening in Dunwoody later this fall. Its success no doubt stems from its streamlined methods for processing the crowds that move through to purchase the no-frills chicken salad and simple deli sandwiches.
Dining in? Move to the right. Take out? Head left. Boxes are prepped and ready to go. There are no surprises here.
At the Buckhead location, no longer on Pharr Road, business folks mix with the play group lunch set, ladies hauling infant carriers and toddlers. The almost instantaneous delivery of plates makes it appropriate for both.
The cafe’s lunch menu began with the walnut chicken salad, which continues to be its best seller. It may take a little hunting, but you’ll find bits of walnut and golden raisins mingled with the thick white-meat mixture. Get it on one of the house-made breads like the soft baguette ($7.50) or over a bed of greens and shredded carrots ($9) paired with ginger dressing, light on the ginger and heavy on the sugar.
The walnut chicken salad became so popular, the cafe added two chicken-based salads: a traditional celery-studded mayonnaisey version followed by a mild curry chicken salad (both $7.50 sandwich/$9 salad plate). The slightly chunky curry mixture would be the one I’d grab on the way to work — although, admittedly, it could do with a bit more pizzaz. A touch of heat? Perhaps a few of those walnuts and golden raisins?
The egg and potato salad ($7.50 sandwich/$9 salad plate) offers a little more interest as it combines simple versions of classic egg salad and potato salad dishes into one. The result? An interesting (and filling) eggy cold mashed potato mound that sounds far less appealing than it actually tastes. It could use a touch of salt, but somehow it just works.
Sandwiches tend toward the traditional. The plastic green sword-speared club sandwich ($8.10) is the highlight of the assorted sandwiches with Boar’s Head deli meats. Excitement comes in the form of a thin swipe of mustard and mayonnaise and a little limp bacon.
As the weather cools, the cafe will add soup to the menu. Until then, if you’re looking for a heartier option, the rice plates ($9) may appeal to you. Sticky white rice accompanies either a soupy, spiceless curry chicken or stark white, unseasoned slices of chicken breast with a concentrated teriyaki sauce.
If you crave something warm, I’d go for the Ahi tuna salad ($16.20). The pink fish, crusty with cracked black pepper, is rushed to your table so quickly it retains the heat from its quick sear.
While the cafe is known for its salads, I’d argue that the yogurt rolls are its signature dish. Sandwiches and salads each come with two perfectly round croissant slices filled with a fluffy, gelled cream-yogurt-vanilla mixture. These two-bite treats were originally developed to use up croissant dough ends. Now, the cafe produces twice as much dough for the yogurt rolls as for the croissants themselves.
If you need a local spot for a quick lunch, one of Cafe at Pharr’s locations may be your bet. In fact, it may take you longer to hunt a parking space than it will to eat lunch.
CAFE AT PHARR
Overall rating: 2 of 5 stars
Food: sandwiches and salads
Service: casual, quick
Best dishes: yogurt rolls, Ahi tuna salad
Vegetarian selections: vegetarian sandwich
Price range: $
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Buckhead location, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Parking: shared lot
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Address, phone: 3145 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-238-9288
More options for this type of cuisine:
Bleu House Cafe
This quirky, bright blue house in Norcross serves homestyle salads, sandwiches, soups and wraps. Owner Maureen Adams: “We started small. Out front, we talked to people to find out their favorites.” The menu of this homey restaurant is now a compilation of customer requests and favorites accumulated over time. Try the smokehouse wrap piled with thick slices of grilled chicken with a sweet and tangy homemade barbecue sauce. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 108 Cemetery Street, Norcross. 770-209-0016,www.bleuhousecafe.com. $
At Cafe Jonah, Jenny Levinson welcomes you into a converted 1960s home for “fresh food, coffee and inspiration.” Cafe Jonah doesn’t vibrate with quite the same energy as its sister restaurant, Souper Jenny. The ever-changing lunch spread includes an array of sandwiches, each with layers of cleverly paired ingredients. On weekends, the foyer becomes a modest bakery, the center table laden with pastries such as Highland Bakery doughnuts, blueberry scones, and scrumptious sweet potato biscuits topped with brie, strawberries and lavender jam. At Cafe Jonah you’ll appreciate the hospitality, the care with which ingredients were selected, and the ways in which they were combined. 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 3188 Paces Ferry Place, Atlanta. 404-343-4107, www.cafejonah.com. $-$$
Wildflour originally opened in Roswell in 2007. A poor location left this restaurant without visibility or traffic, causing owner Michael Fields to uproot and relocate it to Alpharetta in a strip mall off Windward Parkway. Wildflour now gets plenty of traffic, packing this lunch-only spot each weekday. You’ll have to brave the line to order items like the Prodeep sandwich, made with a coconut curry chicken. Fields bakes fresh whole wheat rolls each day for the sandwiches. Wildflour also recently began offering dinner Thursdays-Saturdays. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 5:30-9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 5815 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta. 678-822-9453, www.wildflouratlanta.com. $