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January 26, 2006

photo of yummy crêpe Talk of the Table heading

Renata's: A Great Good Place with Heart


Anyone who knows my wife, Amy, even just a little bit, knows she loves thrift stores, along with funky antique shops, flea markets, vintage stores -- just about anything vintage. So when we spent a week in Paris this summer, it was natural that we'd jump on the Metro Saturday morning and head for the flea market -- the Marchée des Puces, near the Porte de Vanves station.

Amy made her way down the tree-lined street checking out piles of French linens, old post cards and an amazing array of knick-knacks, while I searched for, and found, stacks of 45-rpm records from all around the continent for my DJ son, who caught the record-collecting bug from me.

When we got to the corner, we found something else we were looking for: breakfast. Well, by then it was more like brunch. A large truck was dispensing coffee, juice, fruit, croissants and the like, but the main attraction was the open kitchen at one end where a woman in a red checkered apron was cranking out one perfect crêpe after another. The menu wasn't long: You chose between a variety of jam and cream-filled sweet crêpes topped with Nutella, an Italian hazelnut/chocolate concoction found all over Europe, or sprinkled with powdered sugar, or heartier crêpes with meat and cheese. We split one with ham and Gruyere, which was served street-food style, wrapped in a square of paper that matched the cook's red checkers.

As anyone who frequented the Arcata Farmer's Market knows, Renata's Crêperie was something like that truck, although her vehicle was more like a classic taco wagon, so you could not actually see Renata crafting her perfect crêpes. And if you follow this column you know the wildly painted truck is now history, as Renata's Crêperie has moved indoors to a space on G Street near the Arcata Theatre. In the new place you can sit at the counter and watch as she pours the batter onto a pair of crêpe irons, swirls it into a circle, flips it at just the right moment, then fills it with a much more elaborate set of ingredients than we found in Paris.

The basic menu, divided into sweet and savory crêpes, offers a baker's dozen of regular choices, from simple to complex. And, of course, there are a number of specials every day, or you can rearrange whatever they have on hand to suit your taste.

The sweet ones range from "Simply Sweet," just a crêpe dusted with sugar and cinnamon, to the exquisitely decadent "Righteous Babe," (my breakfast last Friday) filled with raspberries and strawberries and topped with whipped cream drizzled with Nutella, garnished with a strawberry fan.

On the savory side, I favor the "Blessed Heart," filled with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, Jack cheese (from Loleta) and fresh basil when it's in season. Or if I'm really hungry I'll go for "The Hungry Farmer," whose filling filling includes mashed potatoes flavored with rosemary, Loleta Jack, feta, onions and sour cream, and I usually add Black Forest ham and maybe even artichoke hearts if I'm famished.

When I returned for the second day in a row for a Saturday brunch with Amy, we sat at the counter, a work of art crafted by Steve Boehner and his wife, another Amy, of Alchemy Construction, inlaid with gorgeous tile work by Laurel Skye, where we could watch Renata working. Amy had "Of the Earth," a mushroom, cheese (and more) crêpe on the regular menu. I had one of the day's specials: A crêpe filled with eggs scrambled on the crêpe iron and bacon, cooked beforehand at the Food Works, where Renata still maintains a space for "heavy prep" and cooking that goes beyond the bounds of her simple dual crêpe iron setup.

photo of Renata making crêpesBetween talk about KRS-One (she didn't get to go) and Saul Williams (she wouldn't miss his show) she told me about the things she's working on, in particular ramping up for more dinners Fridays and Saturdays, where crêpes become a main dish with garden salad served on top. She's expanding the wine list and always creating new seasonal dishes, like the one she had planned for that evening: a lemon/garlic grilled asparagus, Swiss cheese crêpe topped with crème fraîche and shredded carrots (with Black Forest ham and/or mushrooms optional).

The food is wonderful, but there's something else about the place that makes you want to go back again and again: the ambiance. The décor is comfortably elegant and inviting, nothing pretentious. The chairs and tables don't match; the plates and silver are like those at our house -- a collection of flea market treasures. The straight-from-the-heart interior design seems like it was done by an artist, and it was: Renata studied art in college. The color palette, warm reds and golds, wood and earth tones, instantly makes you feel right at home. The heart is a recurring symbol, and you just know her heart and soul went into the space.

Years ago, I came across a study by sociologist Ray Oldenburg titled, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. He looked for a common thread between "great good" places in Europe: English pubs, German beer gardens, French cafés, Viennese coffee houses, and American inner city barber shops, Midwestern diners, comfortably urbane bookstores -- places where people felt like they had a home away from home, where, as on Cheers, "everyone knows your name." Casual conversations with the people at the next table break out: discussions about the events of the day, about the movie you saw or some show you enjoyed. It's a place where you might run into someone you hadn't seen for a while, or whose kids go to school with your kids, and talk about everything or nothing.

Renata's is that kind of place. At the counter Saturday, watching her create one work of art after another, talk turned to how she ended up in this place, her dream come true.

"There are 10 million things you could do with your life," she began, as she explained why she put her heart and soul into a crêperie. The essence of what she said boils down to this: "It's about community." There's nothing self-conscious about it, but she has created what Oldenburg would deem one of those "other hangouts at the heart of a community."

CORRECTIONS The correct phone number for Renata's Crêperie is 825-TRUE. Also, Steve Bohner of Alchemy Construction, who worked on the interior, credits to his wife Amy as the mastermind behind the counter and the beautiful floors. (Steve helped.)

Above: Renata making crêpes.

Renata's Crêperie is open Wednesday through Sunday 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. and from 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. You'll find the great good place at 1030 G St. in Arcata. Call 825-TRUE for reservations or take-out orders.


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