The word “sonder” is a term that comes from the made-up Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (it’s a blog and a YouTube channel) meaning, briefly, the realization that other people’s lives are incredibly rich and you may play only a bit part in them. Sonder the restaurant is a Railyard diner that may have a brief cameo—or a larger role—in your dining life.
Café Sonder, brought to you by the same folks behind the Plaza Café both downtown and Southside, replaces the Zia Diner with an elegant, airy remodel of the space and a smaller menu that lacks focus but includes some pleasant surprises.
For nearly 30 years, the Zia Diner was a fixture on Guadalupe Street, offering an expansive diner menu and a comfortable space to hang out over a bowl of green chile mac and cheese, blue corn chicken enchiladas or recover with a hangover hamburger. But it went belly-up last winter and closed after the owner struggled to keep up with rent payments amid a slow economy and increased competition.
Fans of the old diner will notice the interior changes right away. Originally a railroad warehouse, the building was remodeled in the early 1980s, becoming Zia Diner in 1986. To be honest, the décor felt a little dated, so this overhaul is welcome. Gone are the dark carpet and paint, replaced by light taupe walls, pale wood floors and black tables. Gone are the stools at the lunch counter and some of the booths. An occasional red chair and red geometric light fixtures add pops of color.
The space is huge (more than 6,000 square feet), and it feels more open, but that means it can feel very empty when there are only a few tables full, as was the case at lunchtime on a recent weekday.
The food here is still based on the same homey comfort food idea: familiar dishes with little twists and a few new and interesting things. At breakfast there are pretty standard versions of yogurt and granola, a smoked salmon bagel, eggs Benedict and an omelet. But there are also fun new takes like cardamom French toast with quince-glazed bananas and a Japanese farmhouse plate with smoked tofu, shitake mushrooms and sticky rice. An avocado tartine replaces Zia's avocado toast.
At lunch, find familiar salads: field greens, kale, a Cobb and one with beet and goat cheese. The sandwiches are big and meaty (prime rib, chicken and prosciutto, etc.). The green chile cheeseburger is very good, fat and juicy with flavorful chile and melty cheese on a sweet and squishy sesame seed bun. At $12 it's a little dear, but the fries are great, too.
The appetizer section is where the interesting things are at lunch, but the execution seems to be uneven.
My dining companion and I tried the butternut squash soup ($5), which was advertised as including bone marrow, croutons and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and described by the server as being made with heavy cream. What arrived was a very pretty cup of golden squash puree garnished with nothing but a sprinkle of herbs. It tasted purely and nicely of squash but lacked the richness of a cream soup, and disappointingly, the sexiness of its promised toppings.
Bright green herbed hummus, smoked beet puree and a tangy yogurt sauce anchor a Mediterranean dip plate ($10) that arrives with an abundance of warm, soft pita triangles, crumbled feta and two kinds of olives. The hummus was rich with olive oil and herbs; we killed it. But the beet puree tasted like… well, pureed beets, which I love, but there was no detectable smokiness. The spiced yogurt sauce delivered a creamy richness that was quickly dissipated by a heavy hand on the acid. Too tangy.
Rabbit confit ($10) is a pretty intriguing dish for a place like this, and in fact it was by far the best-tasting thing we had. But I would have liked it better if my eyes had been closed. It is not an attractive presentation. Tiny shreds of beige rabbit are scattered over a bed of white beans cooked a little too roughly so their skins have started to slip off. A huge hunk of parsley appeared haphazardly thrown on top.
The rabbit itself is deeply flavorful and has a rewarding richness. The beans also taste good! But the care taken with the visual appeal of this dish is jarring compared to the care taken with the redesign of the space.
The rabbit confit is reminiscent of a French cassoulet—minus the ham hocks and pigs' ears and sausages and vegetables and tomato and spices. Hey, a plate of duck confit and white beans (traditional anchors of a cassoulet) can be great on their own! But if you didn't know that and saw this dish delivered to a nearby table, you would not be tempted. Bigger pieces of rabbit, more carefully prepared beans, a little color—any of these could spruce it up.
I look forward to trying dinner, which includes many dishes on the lunch menu, plus some heartier plates: roasted half chicken, enchiladas, a rib-eye and a fisherman's stew that alludes to bouillabaisse.
I hope as the restaurant ages and the team gets more established, it will refine dishes and further develop the comfort food theme. There's certainly a lot of potential.
Café Sonder at a Glance
8 am-8 pm daily
326 S Guadalupe St.,
Best Bet: Santa Fe Classic Burger
Don't Miss: French fries