Cora’s used to be the tiniest cafe, a favorite hang of surfers, pier fishermen and idlers. Lunch and breakfast only. Closed by 3 p.m. Nice piece of real estate, though, right there on Ocean Boulevard, where all the big new hotels were going up. Cora‘s days were numbered, anybody could see that. The bulldozers and cranes came awfully close. But then Cora’s was bought, saved, annexed by veteran restaurateur Bruce Marder, whose beautiful fine-dining establishment, Capo, is right next door. Cora‘s and Capo.
These days, Cora’s Coffee Shoppe consists of the tiny original restaurant, which has a narrow counter and glass cases packed with pastries and wedges of frittata, a couple of seats and about enough room to turn around in, and the main dining area, which is a pretty little patio overlooking Capo‘s parking lot. One recent afternoon, a hairy guy in a Harley T-shirt and his redheaded girlfriend greeted the place like an old friend. They marveled at the new iron arbor and its burgeoning bougainvillea, praised the new checkerboard-weave rattan chairs as they sat; they held hands and, clearly, relived old memories until the waiter came and handed them their menus. One look and they left.
It is a little pricey -- for a coffee shop. A short stack’ll run you seven bills. Steak and eggs, $14 (tho‘ it is a prime N.Y.). The customers are no longer surfers and idlers, but more like suits out exploring from the nearby hotels, or ladies lunching, and not a few chic young dating couples. I’ve seen more cell phones per capita at Cora‘s than I’ve seen in any restaurant outside of Europe.
The new Cora‘s is definitely not a greasy spoon. The food is made from the same ingredients Marder uses at Capo, which are, according to the menu, “organic whenever appropriate.” When, one wonders, is organic inappropriate?
Cora’s recently opened for dinner as well as lunch and breakfast, so on a Monday night, two friends and I drove out there. Only two people were working the place, a waiter-manager-cook and his busboy-dishwasher, and there were only a couple of other customers. When the three of us ordered five items off the one-page menu, the one-man staff calmly wrote it all down, then carried it into the kitchen, where he gave it to himself to cook. He must have had a moment of consternation about how to cook all this and wait tables and keep an eye on things too -- but he quickly solved the problem. He came back outside and announced that he would serve us our dishes one at a time, each divided in thirds. We were too confused or too relaxed under the arbor‘s twinkling lights to argue, and so he did his thing.
First came the “rigatoni meat” (the menu has a certain terseness): simmered meat sauce on big ribbed al dente tubes, good and hot, if not great. Next came the “rotisserie tacos de carnitas,” one per plate, with a spoonful of delicious creamy white beans alongside; the char-tipped carnitas had a spicy, condensed-meat flavor, and made us quite happy. Then came peppered, seared-rare sushi-grade tuna on lovely greens. The meal was beginning to have the pace (and flavor!) of a tasting menu at a good restaurant. What with the trickling fountain and deepening twilight, it seemed romantic, magical. I mean, how often do you go to a coffee shop and wind up at a feast?
We’d ordered one dinner special -- and were given three hefty portions -- of short ribs, braised and served on cheesy polenta, with a surprising number of sliced porcini, and not the dry ones, either. As we ate, course by course, we noticed the busperson and sometimes the cook-waiter running across the parking lot into Capo and coming out with white tubs of this or that, and, once, a cantaloupe -- it showed up peeled and sliced with our prosciutto di Parma, three sizable servings for the price of one.
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If Mr. Marder made no profit that night, he did get return customers. We knew, of course, that such a fairy-tale evening as we‘d had was one of a kind. Indeed, on subsequent visits we sorely missed our resourceful one-man staff. Other employees lacked his excellent waiterly instincts: Hey, at a coffee shop or even a coffee “shoppe,” a person should have her cup refilled at least once, especially when it’s delicious Illy-brand coffee.
The food, however, is consistently good. Try the orange-flavored pancakes, with blueberries and a great subtly chewy texture. Huevos rancheros look austere -- red sauce on eggs, white beans, tortillas -- but the sauce is diabolically tasty, the tortillas are thick and fresh, the sole roasted jalapeño is superb. Sandwiches, or panini, come on a rather bland roll, a blank canvas of bread, but interior ingredients -- prosciutto and a fried egg, for example, with greens -- are of irreproachable quality. And you can‘t get a better pickle, a fresh half-dill made at the Broadway Deli (of which Marder is a part owner); it’s green, crunchy and mild.
But is it organic?
1802 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 451-9562. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No alcohol. Parking in lot and on street. Meal-size dishes $5--$14. AE, MC, V.