When it opened back in the late '90s, SoBo Café featured mac and cheese on the menu before mac and cheese was cool, helping to usher in a restaurant boom in Federal Hill that transformed the neighborhood. The recent opening of SoBo Market—SoBo Café’s mini-outpost off Fort Avenue featuring sandwiches, small plates, takeout, and a killer happy hour—reminded me that I hadn’t been to the flagship comfort-food pioneer in ages.
While many of its cohorts are long gone, SoBo survived, partly through the ministrations of current owner Anna Leventis, who bought the place in 2011 and sparked a genuine revival of this all-American mainstay. Today, the cafe is thriving and bustles with customers eagerly scarfing up old-time favorites like that mac and cheese, as well as newer items that exemplify the kitchen’s philosophy: fresh, house-made, seasonal.
On the evenings I visited, SoBo’s Creamsicle-orange walls were decorated with boldly colored paintings of flowers, and the brightly lit environs were as welcoming as the cozy dining room of an old friend (albeit, one who can truly cook). An array of spreads—think rosemary hummus and house-smoked salmon—provides a perfect counterpoint to the bar’s inventive wine-based cocktails (wine and beer only here), and the addictive accompanying ciabatta is housemade, as is all the bakery fare. We loved the roasted golden beet salad enlivened with mustard green pesto and smoked walnuts. Not so much the spicy cauliflower flatbread, whose delicate vegetable base was overwhelmed by an abundance of melted cheese. However, that was the only misstep in the meal.
There were no disappointments among the entrees, where you’ll still find SoBo’s classic chicken potpie (a marvel of simple goodness), as well as new takes on old-fashioned recipes, like the Korean chicken-fried steak with kimchi collard greens and soy-garlic mashed potatoes, an inspired fusion of American Southern and Asian home cooking. We were crazy about the Bavette steak—beefy, thick-cut flank, dry-rubbed with flavorful spices and sided with creamed spinach and roasted fingerlings. And our pleasure in the creamy pan-seared scallops was doubled by its hearty accompaniment of white bean
ragout with briny clam sauce.
Desserts here are house-made and therefore not to be skipped. We were thrilled to find a Christmas favorite rarely seen on restaurant menus—warm mince pie, which brought back fond memories of family dinners and childhood presents. Paired with a scoop of house-made ginger ice cream, it couldn’t have been homier, just like this longtime little gem of a restaurant. We won’t wait so long to return—after all, we need to try that wonderful-sounding butterscotch pudding with fresh figs and almonds we were too stuffed to order.