Despite a shaky start, things are heating up at Bonbon Café

A Slow Rise 

Despite a shaky start, things are heating up at Bonbon Café

I felt sorry for the folks waiting in line for a table at Bonbon Café. But mostly I felt sorry for myself. It was approaching 1 p.m. on Saturday, and I still hadn't eaten breakfast. Add the time we spent waiting in line to the 30 minutes we spent waiting for our food, and you end up with a formula that leaves pretty much everybody disgruntled.

But it was the server I pitied most during a follow-up lunch visit. Time and time again, she was forced to apologize to her customers, explaining that because of a recent change, a full three-quarters of the already trim menu was no longer available.

Owner Courtney Bonning is painfully aware of the issues that have confronted her and her six-month-old Ohio City café. While the accomplished pastry chef excels at crafting exceptional confections, her transition from sweet to savory has been anything but smooth.

"My mistake was trying to create a restaurant atmosphere when we should have been going for a neighborhood café," Bonning said during a follow-up phone call. "We've been trying to listen to people in the neighborhood about what they want of the space."

That space, decked out in gleaming marble, tile, and glass, is a showstopper. Like a big-city patisserie, the café is intimate, elegant, and attractive enough to warrant a visit every day of the week. As guests cross the threshold, they come face to face with a diet-testing cooler filled with fruit-laced Linzer tortes, sugar-dusted lemon squares, and embarrassingly large chocolate éclairs. Large windows offer views into the bakeshop proper.

The most significant changes that Bonning has implemented involve the menu and hours of operation. Originally, Bonning had hopes of turning Bonbon into "the ultimate date spot." A small-plates menu and liquor license were in place to lure guests for an evening meal. But with high-profile neighbors like Flying Fig and Crop — among many others — the concept never grew legs.

So, in an attempt to right the ship, Bonning ditched the dinners, streamlined the menu, and determined to focus all of her attention on breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch. "Bonbon 2.0," as the chef is calling it, is a rebirth of sorts for the eatery.

"We are simplifying the menu," adds Bonning. "Many of the items were too adventurous, taking forever to come out of our small kitchen. The most straightforward items are what sell the best, we learned."

A third lunch visit appears to confirm that the café is on the right track. Items like a quiche of the day and a meat-filled Cornish pasty — both naturals for a bakery — hit the table hot and fast. An Ohio beef cheeseburger — topped with bacon, avocado, and a fried egg, and swaddled in a light-as-air bun — holds its own with any on the block.

I'm of the belief that the three most important words in the restaurant lexicon are "breakfast all day," and that's the motto here. Flaky, buttery, and crisp, Bonbon's croissants are heavenly. Fresh-made cinnamon sugar donuts, served with a trio of sweet dips, make coffee taste better simply by being in the same room. Meaty lardons of corned beef, greens, and an over-easy egg combine in an updated take on hash. Other options include a granola parfait, vanilla-bean French toast, and the breakfast special: two eggs, bacon, grilled focaccia, and a choice of coffee or a Genessee!

Not all items that made the menu cut are winners. Scrambled-egg-filled flour tortillas are the sort of breakfast one whips up at home when the fridge is bare. The tacos arrive dry and bland, with no sauce or salsa to jazz it up. (Hot sauce had to be requested.) Likewise, a vegetable wrap is little more than a side salad plopped atop a pair of flour tortillas. The only veggies in it — apart from shallots — are bits of pepper.

Bonning says that despite the snafus, her neighbors have been remarkably supportive. They adore her and the space and want nothing more than to watch her succeed. And for her part, Bonning is more than willing to meet them halfway.

"We keep our ears open and try to give people what they want," she says. "Everybody needs to feel it out and find their niche, and with this menu I think we've finally done that."

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