"Wow, Mom," my child says. "This looks like a festival. What is this place?" With all the multihued buildings and vibrant residents, he's right, you know. Plaza Midwood is a neighborhood unlike all others in Charlotte (hence a follow-up discussion about what makes a community with my son). Real estate developers can only hope to replicate some aspects of this kind of community in those far-flung suburban planned communities with pre-planned names. Older Charlotteans seem to be thankful that not all elements of character have been eviscerated from their hometown while younger residents maintain funkiness unlike any other zip code (and yes, NoDa shares the same zip).
While more and more of Charlotte's culinary choices are being dictated by distant corporate chains, Zada Jane's Corner Cafe is a creation of Charlotteans. Co-owner and native eastsider Roger Raymer had watched this building on the corner of Thomas Street and Central for years while he was the general manager of Thomas Street Tavern just down the street. When it finally came up for lease, the owners were pursued by the Massachusetts-chain Dunkin' Donuts. But rather than becoming one of Dunkin's 7,000 locations, the Heath family chose a local operation. According to Raymer, lunch at Thomas Street cinched the deal. Zada Jane's is also owned by Bob Whitman, owner of Thomas Street, and Marcia Hurst, who has worked at a longtime favorite Charlotte eatery, 300 East in Dilworth.
The 50-seat Zada Jane's has turned a corner that was once unremarkable -- a former gas station from the 1930s -- into an oasis of zeitgeist. The brightly colored interior splashed with yellow and purple, a broad expanse of windows stretching across the front, an imposing u-shaped counter in the center and a small pass-through to the kitchen spells out the cozy in a "groovy" kind of way.
"Yeah, I got the idea while living in Boone," admits Raymer. "Charlotte didn't have a place like Boone or Asheville for a hippy breakfast." (No, granola is not on the menu ... yet.)
Zada Jane's is named for Raymer's maternal and paternal grandmothers (both deceased), but none of the eatery's recipes are theirs. Admittedly a Bunny Ranchero with eggs, black beans, chorizo, white queso, guacamole, and salsa verde probably wasn't on too many Charlotte breakfast tables 40 years ago. Straightforward egg dishes are popular for both breakfast and lunch. Local referents dot the menu: Commonwealth of Chicken Salad, NoDa Salad (vegetarian, of course), Shamrock Garden Salads, and a Chantilly Chicken Wrap. Most of these recipes were created by chef Michael Tomlin.
Currently most of the bread and baked goods are from Pineville's Depalo Bakery, and sometimes Grandma's Zada "TLC" biscuits come out of the freezer (when they run out, I'm told) rather than being made fresh in-house.
Zada Jane's is disproving Kermit about the ease of being green: many menu items either are vegetarian or can be made as such, and much of the produce is locally sourced. The kitchen does not have a fryer. The meats are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and the restaurant is both smoke- and high-fructose-corn-syrup free. Even the ketchup is harmoniously organic. T-Rex supplies the teas, and the coffee is Stone Cup Roasters out of Chattanooga, Tenn.
The freshness of the ingredients is evident in the loosely packed vegetable burger which needs a non-buttery bread -- it comes on a grilled croissant. The Green Mind Meld is worth ordering for the vulcanized, er, grilled portabella, if not the mozzarella. Dishes like these show the kitchen's finesse. On the other hand, the chicken breast on focaccia, while enhanced by a sun dried tomato mayonnaise concoction, lacks oomph. The black-eyed pea salad, which is a choice to accompany sandwiches, has a nourishing flavor. By comparison, the salads seem tame: one is studded with crunchies while the chicken salad is primarily dark meat -- an interesting twist.
Recently Zada Jane's opened for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. The night menu looks more serious and is still being tweaked. Dishes range from wild mushroom ravioli ($13) to a $23 10-ounce skillet-seared rib eye. Longtime Charlotteans will notice a nod to a well-known, now-gone restaurant on Morehead: the Lamplighter Crab Cake appetizer.
Whether embracing a meatless ideology or not, diners seem to agree that Zada Jane's proposition that food can be both healthy and satisfying is reassuring. The eats here don't try too hard, nor are they mindlessly novel. What better panacea for the current economic climate than to visit a kitschy, affordable, friendly place? Your server will insist on knowing your name: it's even printed on your receipt.
Prices, personnel, dishes, and operating times are accurate as of March 2008, the time of publication. Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Let us know!
Zada Jane's Corner Cafe, 1601 Central Avenue, 704-332-3663. Hours: Breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.; Dinner Wednesday through Saturday 6 p.m. until 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. weekends. Patio, shuffleboard. All major credit cards. www.zadajanes.com.