by Tom Sims
I had no idea what to expect from Irene’s Café. I’ve driven by and walked by it for years, but have never gone in. It always seemed clean and busy from the outside with an attractive and compelling presence. I just never had a need to try it out when I was in the neighborhood. Assignments such as these open a world of possibilities. I went for the purpose of writing about another Tower District experience. I will return for the atmosphere and for the flavor as well as for the sense of community.
Anyone who reads what I write about neighborhoods for long knows that I am a big fan of “third places.” These are places in neighborhoods that serve as the village squares where neighbors meet, talk, and collaborate. Community cannot happen without them.
Irene’s is a “third place” in the Tower. It is obvious before one gets in the door. People are coming and going with a confidence that announces, “I’m home.”
In a corner, there is a meeting. I know it is a meeting because three people at the table have their notebooks open and are working around a laptop computer. They look engaged. Someone is keeping their coffee cups topped off. No one is rushing them.
People are relaxed at patio tables. People come and go and are greeted by name and with good humor. I only feel like an outsider briefly.
I was there at 2 p.m. on a Friday. That is an impressive time for an impressive crowd of all kinds of people – young, old, business, professional, artistic, and just plain folks.
There were smiles on the faces of staff. I overheard one new member of the wait staff telling her supervisor how much she liked working there. I get more from eavesdropping sometimes than from asking questions.
In fact, while no one rushed me or brushed me aside, everyone was too busy to stop and answer many questions.
The menu was extensive, but well organized and easy to read. In fact, it was seven pages long – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks. The desert menu was especially tempting, but I resisted.
There is a great deal of buzz in the social media about Irene’s. People like it for the most part whether they are Fresnans or people from out of town. Visitors tweet that they are planning to make it part of their stop in Fresno.
I’d call the décor either contemporary-old-school or old-school-contemporary. But I know nothing about décor except what I like. What I know is that it helped me relax, enjoy, and expect. I especially liked the ceramic tile art, if that is what it is called, the wall paintings, and the staff wearing flowery shirts who became part of the décor.
“Thrifty” ice cream is on the menu. That will bring me back another day.
The coffee is sophisticated without being snobbishly bitter. There are deep cups and abundant refills. That is always a good selling point for me.
According to the restaurant web site, “Owner Irene Saul devotes her time to two favorite pleasures: people and fine food.”
She has been at this for years in this location. Irene’s is an institution that has kept up with the times. “Her restaurant is a labor of love and she takes pride in the fact that everything served is fresh,” according to the publicity. Irene is a native of Fresno, and “sees her customers as a reflection of the community –warm, caring and friendly. “
I spoke to a young man named Martín who bragged about Irene’s original recipes and spoke with great pride about his place of business. That is a good sign. The original recipe that impressed me most was what I ordered. As a vegetarian (See: http://kingsriverlife.com/02/04/life-after-meat-a-vegetarian-experience/), I order veggie burgers with fear and trembling. Generally they taste and feel like bricks with a dash of salt.
What a surprise this was! It was full of wonderful seeds, light, fresh, lively, and flavorful. The sandwich was no second-class citizen on the menu. It was worth featuring! I was delighted and full!
Of course, carnivores have scores of options. KRL’s editor raves over their turkey burger.
I will try the Islander next time, described as “a delicious sandwich filled with ripe avocado, lettuce, sprouts, artichoke hearts, your choice of cheese and all the extras!”
Of course, next time, I might go at night and order appetizers or for breakfast and order who-knows-what. Actually, I am rather excited to have found another wonderful hangout that so many others have already found, another excuse to hang out in and stroll through the Tower District.
You can read more about Irene’s Café on their website.
I will be going back and taking friends and family.
TEL: (559) 237-9919
FAX: (559) 275-7301
747 E. Olive Ave.
Fresno, CA 93728
You can find more of Tom’s Tower District and Downtown Fresno articles here.