Zack Bruell’s latest concept, Kafeteria (200 Public Square, 216-298-9131), might seem at first to be a major departure from his typical upscale bistro spots. But while the format has changed, diners still can detect influences from his other restaurants and cuisine at the station-based outpost, which opened last week. The playful use of “K” instead of “C” in the name indicates that Bruell intends to take the traditional cafeteria concept and make it his own — and he has.
The 8,500-square-foot Kafeteria space is huge and well-lit without being overbearing. The maroon colors and corrugated steel make for clean lines and a warm atmosphere, and great smells emanate from every corner. With this location, Bruell has a built-in crowd of diners thanks to the 2,400-plus employees who work in the building, plus countless others who work in the heart of downtown and will likely flock to the Public Square location. Indeed, during my visits the café was bustling, with many patrons expressing excitement about Kafeteria’s debut.
Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, the contemporary and open space on the third floor of the building boasts more than 10 stations offering everything from pizza to noodles, with spaghettini with meatballs and Asian-inspired shrimp Pad Thai each going for $8. Also on hand are comfort foods like mac and cheese ($6) and a simple but delicious meatloaf ($8) in a piquant sauce that's served with garlic mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. The grill station cooks up items like burgers, coffee-braised pork sandwiches on brioche, grilled cheese and a za’atar chicken pita (most items $6.50 -$8). Everything is made from scratch, with most items made to order while you wait, so manage your time accordingly (high-quality, made-to-order food doesn’t happen instantaneously). There’s even a sushi station featuring the same quality fish that’s served at Bruell's Tremont mainstay, Parallax. “I’m confident this is the best sushi in town,” says Bruell, adding that he sought out and hired one of his former Parallax sushi chefs to run the station.
Bruell’s goal here is to offer one of the best lunches in town to busy workers who crave something of higher quality, yet still at budget-friendly prices. Though he admits there are bound to be some adjustments along the way, quality will never be compromised. “This is the starting point,” he says. “We want to ease in, so we don’t disappoint. This isn’t your typical cafeteria. Standards have been set and I’m not deviating from those standards.”
The space feels modern and welcoming, with refreshingly different offerings than your run-of-the-mill cafeteria. An espresso station is stocked with a full line of coffee drinks and sweet treats. A juice bar offers everything from fresh carrot or beet juice to complex and healthy smoothies. Try the Green smoothie ($6) with parsley, kale, cilantro and arugula for something different and delicious. And don’t overlook the better-than-average options on the salad bar ($7.99/lb) like a chickpea and kale salad, lentil salad, and quinoa in addition to the more typical leafy fare. There are eight different salad dressings from which to choose.
How does Bruell handle quality control with an impressive seven-restaurant empire under his belt? “I am at every place almost every single day at some point,” he says. “I will be here until I know it’s running the way I want,” he adds, while skillfully working the noodle station.
We wouldn’t have expected any less from Bruell.