You've never seen a restaurant quite like the Vanguard Cafe before. Rarely does the setting so completely overshadow the food, which in this case is pleasant but hardly memorable. You couldn't say the same about the Vanguard's dining room.
It's in the spot where Bowen & King opticians was for more than 75 years. Co-owner Nancy Smanko, who did the interior design, previously worked for Ikea; but nothing could be further from that clean-lined Scandinavian look. The high-ceilinged dining room has a certain decadently elegant air, with what must be the original marble tile floors, ornate gilded mirrors and handsome mantels.
Then things start to get a little funky. The walls are sponge-painted a sort of mustard yellow and hung with aggressively contemporary paintings. And the seating is an eclectic assortment of heavy Victorian-influenced furniture -- mahogany dining room chairs, wing chairs, settees, sofas -- freshly upholstered in an assortment of velvets and brocade in various colors. There are even coffee tables at the center of chair and sofa groupings. It's like eating in a second-hand furniture store.
I was expecting an offbeat menu to match the interior design; but no one is going to raise an eyebrow at Vanguard's hot crab dip and chicken salad and quiche of the day. The menu boasts mostly sandwiches and salads, plus savories to have with drinks and sweets to have with coffee.
My first meal there wasn't a success: I ordered a roasted red pepper, havarti and red leaf lettuce sandwich on a baguette. The baguette had been toasted to such crunchiness it was difficult to eat, and the red pepper was a big wet canned pimiento. The potato salad that came with it was sloppy with mayonnaise -- but it did have a good flavor.
On another visit, things were better. Not the service, which was erratic the first time and equally so the second. Our waiter, for instance, brought salt and pepper to the table in the middle of the meal. (Not that we needed it.) Bread would have been good with the soup or the salad or both, and spoons would have been good with the coffee.
The second time I stayed away from the baguette sandwiches and had shrimp salad on a croissant. The croissant, too, had been heated; but that made it flaky, not hard to eat. The shrimp salad -- a generous mound of it -- was nicely flavored, with just the right amount of mayonnaise. But the indifferent coleslaw wasn't a good alternative to the potato salad. (You have your choice with sandwiches.)
We ordered the soup of the day, broccoli-cheese, somewhat hesitantly because it can be thick as wallpaper paste. But this was a lovely soup, the texture of heavy cream, served piping hot with freshly grated Romano cheese on top.
The soup was followed by a Caesar salad -- a Caesar salad in name only. Yes, there were fresh romaine and house-made garlicky croutons, but otherwise, you have your choice of anchovies or red pepper with it, and the dressing is vinaigrette with grated Romano. (I guess some restaurants are no longer taking chances with the classic raw-egg dressing.)
The Vanguard Cafe isn't primarily a coffee bar, but it does offer the currently popular cappuccinos and caffee lattes. Desserts change daily, mostly made off the premises, and you can count on at least one or two intensely chocolate choices. We tried but weren't taken with a curiously tasteless cake of chocolate and yellow sponge layers with strawberries and whipped cream.
Where: 405 N. Charles St.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Credit cards accepted: AE, MC, V.
Features: Light fare.
Non-smoking section? Yes.
Call: (410) 837-6621.