Welcome to #GrandLakeEats, a feature highlighting the restaurants, chefs and owners who make up the various eating establishments around Grand Lake.

This week, we feature The Cafe, 700 W. Conner Avenue, Fairland.

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Merriam-Webster defines a cafe as “a usually small and informal establishment serving various refreshments (as coffee)” or “a small restaurant where you can get simple meals and drinks (such as coffee)."

The Grand Lake area boasts a number of eating establishments that meet and embrace this definition.

However, there’s a place in Fairland that is taking the idea of a cafe and kicking it up a notch.

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Cafe offers the comfortable, casual ambience of a cafe, but its menu features a wide array of made-from-scratch dishes that far surpasses most cafes’ usual offering of breakfast and burgers.

“The name hurts us a bit. We’re not ‘just a cafe’,” said Matt Hopper, who owns The Cafe with his wife, Julie. “We’re more of an upscale cafe.

“Everything is made from scratch. It’s fresh, not out of a package and seasoned well. We have hand-cut steaks. We make our own flavored butters and our own sauces.”

The Cafe also serves flame-grilled steaks, homemade jelly and a variety of smoked meats, which are smoked on-site.

In addition to his duties as owner, Hopper runs the kitchen at The Cafe, a role he finds very comfortable.

“The Cafe is the first restaurant I’ve ever owned, but I’ve been in the food and beverage business pretty much all my life,” Hopper said. “Before, I had only worked in country clubs, resorts and motels.”

The Wyandotte native got his start in the food and beverage industry at Shangri-La. His career path led him to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as well as Indian Springs Country Club in Tulsa.

So how did a corporate food and beverage career on the East Coast end up with Hopper owning and operating his own restaurant in Fairland?

“I was living in South Carolina and my grandfather got sick. He had pretty much raised me, so I moved back to be close to him,” Hopper said. “He lived about 14 more years.”

About The Cafe

Hopper said the building in Fairland where The Cafe is now located has been home to several restaurants for the past 45 years or so.

Three years ago, Hopper drove past the building and noticed the restaurant was closed.

“I had eaten here before. The guy who was running it had been my chef at Shangri-La,” Hopper said. “I pulled in and saw a note on the door – closed due to death.”

After enquiring about the note and closed business, Hopper learned his former chef had passed away, leaving the restaurant vacant.

“I found out who owned the business. And, after a 15-minute spiel, the owner agreed to sell it to me,” Hopper said.

The restaurant was closed for remodeling before reopening three months later.

“They had just shut everything off,” Hopper said. “The sprinkler system had busted. We cleaned and fixed it up and remodeled.”

In addition to the cosmetic changes, Hopper also made a few changes to the menu, “we jazzed it up a little bit.”

Hopper built an open-pit smoker behind the building, where all of The Cafe’s smoked meats are done.

“You will not find a smoker like this at any other cafe,” Hopper said. “They all use big barrel smokers. With this open-pit smoker, there are no pellets, just 100 percent smoked meat. You can taste the smoke.”

What sets you apart?

Hopper said several items set The Cafe apart from others. 

“The main thing is how everything’s done from scratch,” Hopper said. “French fries are hand cut, the chicken fried steaks are hand cut and hand breaded, the fish and chips - everything is made just like you would do at home.”

Hopper’s commitment to scratch cooking extends to all parts of the menu, including the flavored butters, sauces and gravies.

“The brown gravy is a two-day process. We boil all the meat scraps from the hand-cut meat, strain and cool it,” Hopper said. “Then make the gravy from all that.”

Hopper serves his food in a variety of ways, from the Sizzler Platters, lunch and dinner specials, whole hog food buffet to the Sunday buffet.

Available after 5 p.m., the Sizzler Platters feature beef tips, fried shrimp, grilled salmon, shrimp, chicken breast or steak and shrimp with onions, peppers and vegetable medley served on a sizzling hot skillet. The Sizzler Platters come with choice of potato or rice.

The Cafe has a special every day of the week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m.; lunch and dinner are served the rest of the day.

Lunch special changes weekly, but each day has a set dinner special. The specials range in price from $6.99 to $15.99, with nightly specials served from 4 p.m. to close.

The specials include chicken fried steak and chicken livers on Mondays; and pork chops on Tuesday, served with a baked sweet potato with cinnamon/sugar butter.

Wednesday's special is all-you-can-eat fried chicken or an eight-ounce sirloin, while Thursday is Southwest food night at The Cafe. The specific special changes but can include black beans and rice, grilled ribeye, cheese quesadilla or fajitas.

The Cafe goes whole hog on Friday, literally. Hopper smokes a whole hog, shreds the meat into pulled pork and then serves it on the buffet with bologna and smoked sausage piled on top. The whole hog buffet includes all the fixings, such as potato salad, baked beans, green beans and baked potatoes.

The hog is smoked on Friday, so the meat is served fresh right off the smoker, Hopper said.

Saturday’s specials are prime rib, Philly cheesesteaks and chef’s choice, which Hopper said, may be seafood, steak or something else.

All-you-can-eat catfish is the special on Sunday. Available all day and night, the catfish comes with salad bar and sides, including coleslaw.

The Sunday buffet is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It includes two meats, potato (mostly baked, but sometimes mashed), vegetable, salad bar and dessert.

The meats on the Sunday buffet change weekly but Hopper said he usually includes fried chicken — about 99.9 percent of the time — because it’s so popular with his Sunday customers. The other meat changes depending on whatever he decides to do for that day.

Homemade chicken and noodles also are known to make an appearance on the Sunday buffet, which he said, is a crowd pleasure.

The specials are served with one side and one trip to the salad bar.

The Cafe is also known for its desserts, which, of course, are all made from scratch.

Julie Hopper is the master behind the desserts, making everything from the chocolate cake on the salad bar to a selection of pies ranging from Butterfinger, Oreo and peanut butter pies to coconut cream, fruit pies and, occasionally, pecan pie.

Whole pies are available at The Cafe. Pre-orders are preferred, but ask the waitress just in case.

Signature dishes

Hopper said each menu features a signature dish, starting with biscuits and gravy at breakfast time. 

“It’s a large portion," Hopper said. "It’s one big biscuit served on a platter. The Southern-style biscuits are made every morning, the gravy too."

Breakfast also features egg platters which include fresh-ground hash browns and choice of biscuit and sausage gravy or toast.  

It also includes Julie Hopper’s homemade jelly: which can include raspberry, blueberry and mixed berry. Strawberry jelly is always available.

At lunch, Hopper said, The Cafe sells a bit of everything, ranging from cheeseburgers prepared on an open-flame grill, to a whole hog sandwich - a sandwich piled high with pulled pork, bologna and smoked sausage.

At dinner, the signature dish is a is grilled steak, prepared on an open-flame grill, and comes with a choice of potato, vegetable medley and salad bar.

The salad bar includes a mix of freshly cut iceberg and romaine lettuce, as well as a number of fresh veggies, including tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, as well as pickled beets, olives and, sometimes, peaches.

Raisins, bread and butter sweet pickles and sunflower seeds are mainstays on the salad bar, along with potato salad, cole slaw, pea salad and pasta salad.

While the offerings on the salad bar are always a little different, Hopper said, one thing is constant - chocolate cake. 

Best compliment?

Hopper said by far, the best compliment he has received is how clean his restaurant is, despite it's age.

“Considering this is a 45-year-old building and we run several hundred people through it every day, that makes me real happy," Hopper said, adding that he also hears about how friendly is staff is to customers. “All of the waitresses have been here since we started. That says a lot about the place, I think.”

More about The Cafe

The Cafe is located at 700 W. Conner Ave., in Fairland. It is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week year-round, closing only on Christmas day. Winter hours, operating now until March may mean the restaurant closes early at 8 p.m. on some nights. 

The Cafe has two entrances, one on each side of the building, which makes it accessible from both parking lots - which also includes truck and boat parking in the back.

In addition to the dining room, The Cafe also features a private room in the back that can be reserved for groups. Hopper said several organizations, including the Lions Club, regularly meet at the restaurant. 

For more information about The Cafe, to place a to-go order or to order a whole pie, persons interested may call 918-848-5000.

Martha J. Henderson is a freelance writer for The Grove Sun. For more information, persons interested may contact her at mjhenderson@1791.com.