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Elijah Fox / Sun Staff Writer

April 22, 2019

Coal Yard Cafe: Warming the Soul

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For decades, 143 Maple Avenue served as the business office for a series of companies tasked with distributing coal to the city of Ithaca. Today, it continues to warm the bodies and souls of students and residents, albeit in a far more tasty manner.

Coal Yard Cafe sits just across the gorge from Schoellkopf Field, making it an easily accessible brunch spot for Cornellians with a day off. As a consequence of its great location and small interior, however, patrons of the cafe will find any hopes of a quiet meal quickly dashed.

With just a single room for dining and a handful of tables, the space is reliably packed. I was deterred from my first visit by an unpalatable wait time of over an hour, but returned two weeks later to test my luck. My advice to anyone hungry from skipping their first meal of the day in favor of combining it with the second: Try again. It’s worth it.

The structure of Coal Yard is unconventional, a departure for those used to brunch served by waiters. On a first-come, first-served basis, patrons enter the cafe and line up behind the register, with plenty of wait time to decide on an order. They choose from a vast array of options ranging from rice bowls to lox plates, pasta dishes to “ranch eggs,” then fill a reusable plastic cup with water from a dispenser and venture into the dining area to find a spot to eat. Groups of two or three will be most successful, as most tables are small and chairs are limited. Mine was a party of five, and we were only able to secure seats as we had the luck of running into friends of ours occupying the only large table, happy to trade it off to us the moment they left. The lifespan of an open seat at Coal Yard at brunch time runs asymptotic to zero; those with the battle-hardened skills of snatching chairs at peak-hour Terrace or Trillium will fare best.

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Vintage photographs and artistic maps line the green walls, and the bare wooden roof, with just a couple of rafters taking the place of a ceiling, adds to the vintage and rustic vibe. A few vintage objects, including a scale and a filing cabinet, decorate the room but are limited in number so as to maximize the small space.

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After weighing the diverse options for the duration of my wait in line, I chose the Falafel and Egg plate and a mint hot chocolate. Expectations of traditional falafel balls were dashed as my order came out in the form of a single patty, garnished with greens, sitting atop a bed of pita. Topped with an egg — sunny side up — and tzatziki sauce, the dish’s visuals were captivating.

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The first bite guaranteed my swift return to Coal Yard Cafe at the soonest possible date. The egg yolk broke at a touch, adding to the dish a smooth touch rarely found in the traditional falafel sandwich. The falafel patty had a crispy shell and warm, soft interior with a chickpea flavor far stronger than that of a falafel ball, whose smaller size means a greater fried-to-chickpea ratio. The limited grease and robust, earthy flavor gave the whole experience an air of healthiness that was likely — or at least partly — true.

That is, until I began on the mint hot chocolate. Sweet and hot, it balanced out both the chilly day and the savory entree. At $2.50, its addition to the meal was an easy decision.

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Captured by the medley of savories, I forced myself to slow down only after cleaning half my plate. I tempered that rush by stealing bites of my friend’s crepe beside me, which I have to recommend as a close second to my own brunch — but a first if you find yourself in the mood for something sweet. It had originally been brought out undercooked, but when this was brought to the attention of the staff, it was replaced within minutes. This demonstration of excellent service yielded a crepe I am sure to order on my next visit.

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After ensuring that nothing edible remained on the table, my friends and I brought our dishes to the front, thanked the staff and left for the short walk back into Collegetown. Not one among us, nor anyone lucky enough to spend their midday at Coal Yard, was anything short of satisfied. The food was interesting and excellent. The portions, if a bit light, were substantial, and only a couple of menu items cost more than $10. The workers were friendly and the atmosphere was jovial and welcoming. This was far and away one of the finest dining experiences I have had in Ithaca, and I can only hope that this article inspires few enough people that the line will be manageable on my own next trip back to Coal Yard Cafe.

Serves: Americanized International

Vibe: Vintage

Price: $

Overall: ★★★★★