It is not often that I find myself heading to the financial district for a meal. I don’t work downtown, and most of the places serving dinner come with price tags equal to several months worth of savings. Plus, I don’t really run with the suit-and-tie crowd (nor the equally flush designer hoodie-and-jeans crowd). But then appeared Cafe Terminus, the little multipurpose restaurant/bar that could.
Cafe Terminus is one of a few joint ventures between chef Dennis Leary of Canteen fame and bartender Eric Passetti of House of Shields, and it opened last fall. In the mornings, the restaurant serves freshly baked pastries and hot breakfast sandwiches alongside house-roasted coffee—think blueberry muffins and oozing eggs on brioche. Around lunchtime, they transition into a take-out sandwich and salad joint, slinging revamped iterations of classic lunch items. (Leary perfected his sandwich skills at nearby lunch joint, The Sentinal.) After work, Cafe Terminus becomes a bar, specializing in absinthe cocktails. Leary keeps the kitchen running until late night, so you can still nosh on the sandwiches late into the evening while sipping on a drink or two. In other words, it’d be possible to stay all day and almost all night in their small dining room. You might get some strange looks, but you’d want for nothing.
I’ve yet to fully try out this idea, but I have settled in for an hour-plus lunch break and been more than happy I did.
The lunch menu changes daily; you can check in online starting around 11am if you’re picky, or just show up and eat what’s served. There’ll always be a choice between a few sandwiches and salads, plus a soup and a couple of desserts. On my visit, I skipped the tempting roast turkey with apple chutney and cheddar cheese ($9) as well as the Vietnamese-style barbecue pork with mint, cabbage and lime ($9.50) and the deviled egg salad sandwich ($9). Instead, I settled on a classic rare roast beef ($10). Each sandwich comes piled high on a housemade seeded bun.
For the best deal, and the most enjoyable lunch break, splurge on the “Business Lunch Special,” which comes with a pint of beer and a bag of Tim’s potato chips—ultra-crisp, ultra-salty, and ultra-good with a pale ale. Lunch arrives quickly in a take-out box, ready to rush back out the door, but most customers snag a table and eat straight out of the box.
The roast beef itself, while tender, rare, and well seasoned, is the least remarkable aspect of the sandwich. Even the lettuce is handled with care and has a fresh, distinct crunch that brings necessary textural contrast. A generous smear of housemade mayonnaise melts into the bread; its luscious creaminess and faint sweetness will make even Duke’s fans forget about the store-bought spread. The horseradish-spiked cream cheese slathered on the top half of the bread isn’t particularly spicy, but you certainly won’t forget it’s there. Then there are the smoked pickled onions. I’m not sure how Leary figured out how to get smoke into those vinegary slivers, but I’m just fine leaving this one particular food a mystery. Tang, smoke, and crunch are the perfect foil to the lean roast beef.
But the best part of the sandwich is that eggy, brioche-like bread. Tear off a corner to eat on its own for a sweet and rich taste of what all sandwiches should be upon. Like a good burger bun, the hearty slices are substantial enough to support the generous filling, but they also squish down so it’s possible to get all the components in one bite. Leary’s bread will make you wonder why anyone would serve a sandwich on crusty bread, or (even more jarring) a crisp baguette.
I’m not one to pass up on a sandwich, so I eschewed the salads that day. But both the chicken and kale salad and the vegetarian asparagus and mushroom salad on the menu that day were a common sight in the dining room. Both are served, happily, with the wonderful bread.
A $15 sandwich and beer lunch isn’t going to replace my usual cheapskate meal of whatever leftovers are in the fridge, but it’s certainly worth the trip every once in awhile—at least until I can figure out how to have Leary’s bread in my kitchen 24/7.