The owner of Cafe 209 told us she became a restauranteur by accident. She has a thriving catering business in downtown Augusta, and the aroma that wafted down the street kept luring people inside. She could never turn anyone away; if they came in, she always ended up feeding them. So she figured she might as well prop up a few tables and hang up a shingle.
The result is one of the best soul-food restaurants anywhere. Cafe 209 (named after its address, 209 10th St.) is a stark little place that seats only about 30, but those are 30 of the best-fed people in town. The restaurant, open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, rotates entrees daily. They include fried and baked chicken, country-fried steak, shrimp, catfish and liver. The entrees are served with a choice of sensational homemade vegetables and a choice of dinner roll or corn muffin.
Fresh and homemade are the definitive words here. The owner cooks for diners the way she cooks for her family, insisting on quality and attention to detail. We started with a basket of hot wings that were piping hot, piquantly spicy, crispy on the outside and fall-off-the-bone tender on the inside. Never have wings soared to greater heights.
We were just as pleased with our entrees. Beef liver with onions ($5.50) was extremely tender and smothered in onions. The accompanying rice was served with rich brown gravy, and the collard greens (picked the day before, we were told) were delicious. The corn muffin was a little sweet for our taste, but we defer to this traditional Southern recipe.
The baked catfish ($5.50) was flaky and impeccably seasoned. The accompanying macaroni and cheese was rich and lightly browned on the top, just the way we like it. The broccoli was steamed to a sublime tender-crisp consistency.
The 10-year-old in our party has become a real chicken-finger connoisseur (a perk of being dragged along on restaurant reviews with her mom and grandmother) and she declared Cafe 209's chicken fingers as good as any she has tasted. High praise indeed from one of the most discriminating fourth-graders in town.
The homemade bread pudding, brimming with raisins and walnuts, was incredibly moist.
Our iced tea was as fresh and refreshing as you'd expect in any self-respecting soul-food restaurant, and our server was flawlessly efficient and gracious, acing our clutter test. We loved the mellow jazz playing subtly in the background. Our only suggestion: Scrap the plastic cutlery (too flimsy) and put little bud vases on the tables. But with or without flowers, Cafe 209 has blossomed into a real winner.
RESTAURANT: Cafe 209, 209 10th St.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday
RATING: **** out of *****
Mary Deriso is the retired general manager of the Pinnacle Club, a private dining club in Augusta. Christine Hurley Deriso is a writer whose children's book, Dreams To Grow On, will be published by Illumination Arts in the fall.