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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Lounge About: It's hard to imagine any other local restaurant serving as many purposes as the Cardinal.

Night Owl's Daytripper

The Cardinal Coffee Shop and Lounge offers something for every belly

By Jim Harrington

THERE WAS never any reason to doubt that the Cardinal Coffee Shop was open during the daytime. But, until recently, I couldn't actually vouch that the doors were unlocked when the sun was still out.

For me and many other like-minded night owls, the Cardinal has long been a post-party stop. Those looking at 3am to soak up a bellyful of beer with half-pound burgers, gooey pasta dishes and deep-fried goodies at someplace other than Denny's have found a home at this 24-hour restaurant for generations. The adjacent dimly lit lounge is an increasingly popular place for drinking, dancing, karaoke and watching sports on TV.

But the Cardinal is more than just a late-night refueling stop. In fact, it's hard to imagine any other local restaurant serving as many different purposes as the Cardinal. Early birds cozy up to the breakfast counter for big plates of Belgian waffles and pancakes; lunchers linger over the lengthy menu of sandwiches and salads. Dinnertimes are equally crowded, as the fare changes to steak and chops. There's a sizable senior menu.

Prominently located at the corner of Hillsdale and Meridian avenues, the Cardinal seems more Southern than Silicon Valley; waitstaff artfully balance rush hour business with a comforting, friendly and down-to-earth demeanor. Many of the servers have been with the Cardinal for years. Our waitress this visit, a delightfully patient woman by the name of Adriana, has worked at the coffee shop for nearly 25 years.

On the downside, the menu is overly ambitious, and it's easy to speculate that the overall dining experience might improve if some streamlining took place. Still, there's something for everyone on the multipage list of all-American favorites and Italian dishes.

Our party of three visited during regular dinner hours and grabbed one of the deep booths near the tall windows. Cardinal's decorating scheme is '50s futuristic, with red and black racing lines running across booths, tables and chairs; and flying saucer-like chandeliers. An L-shaped counter faces busy cooks in an open kitchen. We started with the combination appetizer platter ($10), a decadent way to sample the goods. As expected, the fried snacks were the best—the long zucchini sticks were surprisingly moist under their crispy golden coverings, the mozzarella fingers were appropriately stringy and flavorful when dipped in "spaghetti" sauce, the shrimp were meaty. Guests get their choice of sauces with this sampler; our favorite was the tangy, sweet barbecue.

My half-pound bacon Swiss burger ($8.95) was ordered medium, but it came closer to well done, which made for a dry sandwich until I added a big dose of barbecue sauce. Accompanied by a generous portion of fries, the burger made for a sizable meal. But not sizable enough for some customers—for those folks, the restaurant offers the gargantuan Cardinal Super Burger ($10) with its PETA-shocking 1-pound patty.

Moving in a more adventure-some direction, we also tried the chicken Jerusalem ($13.95). Slices of tenderly sautéed chicken breast were nicely complemented by chunks of artichoke hearts, mushrooms and red peppers in a slightly garlicky white wine sauce.

Fans of meatloaf—the dish, not the singer—will want to circle Tuesdays on the calendar. It's hard to find a decent meatloaf in the Bay Area but the Cardinal serves one of the best. This once-a-week house special ($9.95) delivers three thick slices of dense meatloaf covered in mildly flavorful dark gravy with a softball of creamy mashed potatoes and enough veggies to freak out any self-respecting 11-year-old.

If at all possible, save room for dessert. Adriana provided carefully detailed descriptions of all the baked goods nestled in the display case before we settled on the 50-50 Cheesecake ($5.25). The cake slice, which artfully melds rich vanilla and chocolate flavors, was presented on a web of crisscrossing black-and-white squiggles.

The Cardinal Coffee Shop and Lounge
Address: 3197 Meridian Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408.269.7891; www.cardinalcoffeeshop.com
Hours: Coffee shop, 24 hours a day; lounge, noon to 2am daily
Cuisine: American, diner, coffee shop
Price Range: $5-$14

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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