The Symposium Cafe is a concept restaurant that has never gained much steam with franchisees across the nation. What appears to be the original Symposium Cafe in Durham, NC has been closed for nearly a year, and there looks like there's one in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as a couple three in Canada. I've eaten at the Davenport Symposium Cafe about four times now and I've had mixed feelings about the place. My wife seems to like it a lot. I've been tepid - at best - regarding the restaurant. We had a planned holiday get together for dinner with friends and one of them picked the Symposium Cafe. My reaction was, "Ohhh...OK, I suppose."
The Davenport Symposium Cafe is located in a small strip mall near the corner of 53rd Ave. and Utica Ridge Road (see map) in the middle of a belt of theme and both regional and national chain restaurants. It's been open for a little over a year now. The first time I was in the place was to buy gift certificates for the people who helped me with my rehab after my dual hip replacements last year. I then met a friend for lunch there later in the summer. I had the steak salad and it wasn't too bad.
At that time, I also met the G.M., Mike Chupka, the former owner of the Waterfront Deli in Bettendorf, who had come on board to be the manager for a group of investors headed by David Smith and Jim Bergman - two real estate developers based in the Quad Cities. It appears, however, that Mike Chupka has moved on to a new venture - Rivals Sports Bar and Grill - which opened recently not far from our home in Davenport.
Executive Chef Josh Guthrie is in charge of a menu that features breakfast, lunch and dinner items served seven days a week. The concept behind the Symposium Cafe is to offer various eclectic and gourmet dishes throughout the day, including breakfast that is served up to 5 p.m.. They also feature a number of specialty coffees, teas and hot drinks - sort of an upscale Starbucks, if you will. And they also have a number of homemade dessert cakes they have on display in a case up front. This, no doubt, allows people who are waiting for a table to get a good look at the cakes to get them thinking about dessert before they've even sat down to order.
Symposium Cafe is part bar, part restaurant. They have a large bar area off to the left as you walk in that features a couple of flat panels behind the bar. When I stopped in to get the gift certificates for my physical therapists last summer, I sat at the bar and ordered one of their Bloody Mary's. I have to say it was pretty damn good. The area around the the bar is large and it's a comfortable place to wait for a table in the dining room.
Two of the last times that we've been in before was to have breakfast and dinner, respectively. Breakfast was on a Sunday and while the place was busy - a large group of elderly bus travelers was in the back dining room - the main dining area was not as busy. However, our waitress must have been suffering from a hangover, or at least she intimated that she was not on top of her game after a night out. We waited a LONG time for our food (we guess she forgot to put the order in), she forgot to fill up Cindy's coffee and she never came back to check if I wanted another Bloody Mary. Finally, she never did come back to give us our bill. We had to go up to the counter to ask for our bill. She didn't get a good tip.
The next time we went was for dinner and it was early so we didn't really encounter any problems with our service. However, one thing that I do not like about Symposium Cafe - or any cafe like it, for that matter - is when they have the banquette seating for a table up against a wall. They have that against the north wall of Symposium Cafe and while it saves on space, it also takes away the intimacy of dining at a table. It's like you're immediately part of the group or couple dining next to you as conversations can be easily heard back and forth between the two tables. Some people may look at that as a chance to foster interaction between the patrons at different tables, but I view it as an intrusion for what should be a relaxing experience.
There were six of us who gathered on an early Saturday evening at the Symposium Cafe. The other two couples were already seated at a table in the corner near the front. Cindy and I were relieved to see that we wouldn't be seated along the wall. Our server for the evening, Alex, had already given the specials for the evening which included prime rib and a seafood dish. We spent the first hour having drinks and catching up with everyone while Alex patiently awaited our dinner orders. He was overly patient, I might add.
When we finally got down to ordering, I was torn between a number of things. I have to say the food I've had in previous visits to Symposium Cafe up to that point was good, but there really wasn't anything that tripped my trigger. I decided to go with the Cajun New York Strip, rare. For the sides, I had a choice of rice, mashed potatoes with garlic or broasted wedge potatoes. I really didn't want any of those, but I ended up getting the garlic mashed potatoes. A side of mixed veggies also came with the meal.
Cindy ordered the orange roughy, while three of the rest of the group got the prime rib special. The last person, Jerry, ordered a bowl of the French Onion soup and an appetizer that consisted of a dozen hazelnut coffee encrusted grilled shrimp. Cindy and I both got a glass of the Silver Palm Cabernet to go along with our meal.
The place had filled up appreciably as the night went on. But our waiter, Alex, was attentive and was helped out by other waitresses in bringing drink orders to our table. I will say, however, that he did miss getting me a new beer when I'd asked for it earlier. That was the only blemish on his otherwise stellar serving performance that evening.
Our meals showed up and here is my Cajun New York strip steak. The plate presentation, to me, was a little jumbled and messy. But the steak was cooked about right, probably a little more medium rare than rare. The garlic mashed potatoes, however, were WHOA! They should have called them mashed garlic with potatoes. They were really garlicky, so much that it got my attention from the first bite. Others in our group also remarked at how much garlic was in the potatoes. One of our friends, Ladd, said, "I like garlic but this may be too much." I made Cindy take a bite of my garlic mashed potatoes or she wouldn't have been able to be around me the rest of the evening, it was that strong. But, quite honestly, I thought they were pretty good.
Cindy's orange roughy was good, she said. It came with a bed of rice and mixed veggies. One thing that she was a little miffed about was that lemon wedges weren't automatically brought to the table for her fish. When our waiter came back to check on us, she asked for some lemon wedges. He quickly grabbed four or five wedges for her and brought them to the table.
The people who got the prime rib were all happy with their choices. I took a picture of the prime rib our friend Karen had sitting next to me, but I inadvertently erased it. She said she got her's medium, but wished she would have gotten it medium rare. It looked a little more medium well than medium. But the other two prime ribs looked great.
Jerry offered me one of his hazelnut encrusted grilled shrimps. I like the taste of hazelnut, but I'm not certain that it went all that good with shrimp. Between his French Onion soup and the shrimp, he said it was a good, but very rich meal.
What was probably planned to be a two hour meal with friends went well into the night with us talking about a lot of things, as we usually do when we all get together. Some people were finished before others and Alex came by to clean some plates off the table. Ladd's wife, Deb, pointed out something to me that I really had never thought of before. She said, "You can tell how good a restaurant is by the way they clean the plates off the table. To me, it's wrong if they come and ask to clear plates when people are still eating."
She said that it's awkward for the person or persons still eating and - to her - it's a sign that they want you to hurry up. Ladd said, "I'm usually done well before Deb is and I'll keep a bite or two left on my plate so that when the waiter comes up and asks if he can take my plate, I can say, 'No, I'm still working on it.' " You know, in all the years I've eaten in fine restaurants, I've never noticed that. But come to think of it, I do remember restaurants where both sides of the spectrum have happened. That's going to be something I'm going to watch out for from here on out.
Most restaurants want to have 1.5 turns per table per evening. That is, if you have an establishment with 30 tables, they want to have 45 tables served during the evening. Our table never got turned. By the time Cindy and Karen decided to share a piece of carrot cake for a dessert, it was fast approaching three and a a half hours since we'd walked in.
Alex got a healthy tip for his service, plus the fact that we were at the table for quite some time after he presented us our bills. My meal wasn't bad at Symposium Cafe and I got a better feeling about the place this time around. While it's still not my first choice of restaurants to go to in the Quad Cities, I don't think you could go wrong with picking the Symposium Cafe from time to time.
(Update - Feb. 2013: They announced on Feb. 16 that Symposium Cafe would be shutting down after that weekend. Evidently, the landlord got a better offer to lease the space from what is called a "national" restaurant chain. Some people are upset that a national chain would replace Symposium Cafe, but I'm not shedding many tears over their closing. The food was fine, but there was just something about the place that sort of bothered me when we ate there. Now, if it's a Five Guys burgers moving into the space, I'll be very happy about that.)