The Park Café is just over six months old and is quietly making a name for itself in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood. Co-owners Karalee Nielsen Fallert and Xan McLaughlin had the idea to create an atmosphere to welcome in residents and keep them coming back for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Executive chef John Amato translates their vision in the kitchen with approachable, classic cuisine. Curious about the progress of the Rutledge Street café, Eater stops in to talk with McLaughlin and Amato about the midyear mark.
How did you and Karalee come together?
McLaughlin: I was looking to make a new move. I worked as a bartender for a long time and loved it, but I was ready for a change. John Kenney, at Royal American, is a friend of mine. He knew there was a new project going on with Karalee and passed it on that I was looking for something new. A few weeks later, I got a call about it. It was a sort of random, happy coincidence.
When she contacted you, was the space already picked out?
McLaughlin: She was working on it. During our first meeting, she told me this is where she wanted to put it in and I said, "I'm in." I've always loved the location. I've always thought someone should do something with this space.
What was your elevator speech for the concept when you were putting it together.
McLaughlin: Honestly, just really delicious food in a relaxed manner. I love new things, but I think a lot of places do well when they don't deviate from the classics. A lot of our dishes have been around for years, but we have our own modern spin. We try to keep it simple with tried and true items that have been around forever and are good and will always be good.
Why was it important to be in this neighborhood?
McLaughlin: I just love it. And Karalee and I discussed that this neighborhood needed something like Park Café. I've always said this is my favorite part of downtown. The neighborhood has been really receiving and made us feel welcome.
How did you (chef Amato) get involved?
Amato: I was initially contacted by a friend of Xan's. I got a text one day that said Xan was opening a restaurant and asked if I was interested. At the time, I was in a pickle. I didn't know what I was going to do. My truck had stopped services, but I wasn't ready to shut it down. [Ed. note: Amato ran Foodie Truck before joining The Park Café.] I was considering a big move or working in a hotel, but once I saw a rough draft of the menu, the concept, and their ideas—and the fact that it's in this neighborhood that I love—I started shooting ideas back and the rest is history.
What are uniquely Amato touches to the menu?
Amato: A long time ago, a chef told me to "just put the food on the plate," because I was manipulating it too much. I like to let the ingredients be what they are and not overmanipulate or make it too confusing. That's kind of my thing—well-seasoned, hot (if it's supposed to be), and delicious approachable, comforting, tasty stuff. I try to be a purist in a way by going back to traditional plates done in a modern, refined way. The whole menu is like that. They had a strong concept and idea and dishes on paper when I came in, but I think I found a way to make everything my own and the Park Café's own.
McLaughlin: We love what John does, and if he wants to make changes, I say go for it.
The kitchen here is pretty small. I'm guessing it's not too different than your previous work in a food truck.
Amato: Well, we do get consistent running water and electricity here, which is different than the truck. It's close quarters, and you have to watch your step, but we've been fortunate that we get to spread out a bit with the back prep room. We make it work. We can do pretty much anything out of our small kitchen. I don't look at it as a hindrance.
What have been some early contenders for the most popular dishes?
Amato: When we were writing the menu, I would have never guessed that the fried egg sandwich would have been the number one selling dish. It's just a fried egg sandwich, but is it really? It's become our own little masterpiece. We sell more of those than anything else. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I think my favorites, that don't get ordered as much, are the country pâté and mushroom pâté sandwiches. The pork hoagie is one that I recommend.
Has it been a fairly smooth first six months?
McLaughlin: It's been a fun first six months. There's always challenges, but the steps we've made in the past six months have been astronomical compared to some places I've been. We're stepping forward every day. We've had a lot of challenges. Now, I feel like things have settled. I like seeing smooth days.
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