Come for breakfast, stay for brunch
Tune-Up Café feels less like a restaurant and more like the well-appointed dining nook of an Earth-mama party host who fluffs the pillows of the stragglers camped out on couches, gently awakening them with the smell of freshly made banana pancakes. With a menu that whispers brunch and an atmosphere that is basically the adult equivalent of kindergarten nap time, Tune-Up is a welcoming den that is easy on the wallet and generous with its servings of culinary serotonin.
Though it’s open until 10 p.m. every day and many lunch items appear on the dinner menu, breakfast is king, and I ordered accordingly. A special of chicken liver and eggs caught my eye and did not disappoint. A heavy helping of caramelized onions, grilled jalapeños, and wilted spinach lent a spicy tang to the chicken liver, giving it a taste equal parts New York deli and Deep South buffet. Plus, in the hipster Waffle House cooking style favored by this joint, I got to see the cook hand my dish over the counter to the manager dining at my shared table, who nodded his approval at the golden-brown, butterfly-cut livers but chided his employee to toast some ciabatta for me.
The fresh-fruit stuffed French toast — a misnomer, since the poached pears and cranberries are ladled on top — was a luscious creation of pillowy slices of egg-and-cream battered bread. There are, however, some noticeable misfires. I’m looking at you, Huevos El Salvadoreños, with pale scrambled eggs laced with pallid tomatoes and flavorless green onions. The corned-beef hash, a simple if bland grilled mix of red potatoes, poached eggs, and corned beef, only redeemed itself when I called the waiter for a reinforcement of smoky roasted green chile.
Despite its possible overexposure on national food-voyeur programs like the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, the restaurant manages to safeguard its local boho atmosphere. For every tourist driving an SUV with out-of-state plates, caught off guard by their GPS and forced to U-turn into the gravel parking lot, there seem to be two dyed-in-the-wool Santa Feans whiling away the weekday daylight hours with omelets and banana-leaf-wrapped tamales.
Like many casual cafés, Tune-Up offers a blend of counter and table service. Orders and payment are taken at the register while the waitstaff nimbly moves its way around 10 tightly packed tables. The servers are helpful without being cloying, laid-back without being overly aloof. Then again, in the cozy confines of the Hickox Street diner, staff and customers are never more than a few yards apart from one another.
The restaurant has a sizable selection of beverages, coffees, beers, and wines, well curated for the menu’s offerings. A glass of Crispin Cider, a hard apple cider served with ice, proved to be an excellent pairing for eggs and French toast and is a welcome replacement for that old pair of brunch war horses, the mimosa and the bloody mary. As for fresh juices, while it’s refreshing to see an American restaurant dabble in Mexican agua frescas, Tune-Up’s ultra low-sugar version of the Latin American staple needs some work. An agua de Jamaica (iced hibiscus tea) was overly tart, and the lemonade made me pucker.
One overlooked aspect of Tune-Up’s menu is its selection of gluten-free desserts. A rich coconut cake, a mixed-berry crisp, chocolate brownies, and a cranberry scone all held center stage on the dessert rack. It’s a testament to the quality of pastry baking here that these sweets’ lack of wheat flour went largely unacknowledged unless asked about by a curious customer. The berry crisp was a pleasant mix of sweet and tart, its crumbly topping no different from a traditional crisp. The cranberry scone was sweet, and the berry taste shined through. But the baker really needs to step up his game if he hopes to mimic the soft chewiness of traditionally baked goods. It’s a small oversight, considering that this humble restaurant manages to cater to special-needs eaters and the perpetually breakfast-starved, while balancing the demands of tourists and locals with a menu whose items rarely break the $10 barrier.