"We can people-watch!" I overhear an elderly gentleman exclaim as he and his friend prepare to dig into their $7.95 Nutella crepes at Café Atalaya on the Plaza.
Open since late November, the eatery is owner/chef Greg Menke's newest culinary creation. Menke also owns The Beestro, the Middle Eastern joint tucked at the back of Plaza Galeria, and Café Atalaya sits at the front of the same San Francisco Street mall, with wide storefront windows looking out on the Plaza itself.
The café serves up drinks from Las Cruces-based Picacho Coffee Roasters ($2.75 for a 16-ounce cup), soup, salad and an ever-changing selection of gelato flavors (cups for $4-$6.50, pints for $9.95) from Grateful Spoon in Phoenix, Arizona. Menke tells SFR the Grateful Spoon gelato was out of his price range until he worked out a special deal with one of the company's owners, who owns a home in Santa Fe.
Still, the stars of the show are the crepes, which you can watch Menke cook on crepe makers (essentially small, round griddles) behind the counter. Coming in both sweet—like the cajeta, topped with goat milk caramel, piñon and vanilla gelato ($8.95), or the Tree Hugger, covered with fresh berries, greek yogurt and honey ($8.95)—and savory varieties, all crepes are made onsite.
Being nearly lunchtime, I opt for a savory crepe, scanning a chalk menu which includes the spinach and mushroom ($9.50), the turkey club ($10.95) and the breakfast burrito, which is topped with red and green chile ($7.95). The friendly cashier directs me toward the popular crepe complete ($8.95), a large, hexagonal dish made with egg, ham and gruyere cheese and then heavily drizzled with bechamel sauce. I'm glad he does, because the blend of savory flavors, accentuated by the creamy sauce and carried by the light and delicately crispy crepe, is delicious.
I also order the French onion soup (cup: $3.50, bowl: $6.50) made au gratin ($6.95) by Menke's own method: There's no room for the large broiler usually used to make such dishes, so he melts the cheese on the stove, drapes it over my bowl of soup and uses a kitchen blowtorch to brown it. The salty onion soup is good and very filling, though I imagine it would pair better with a sweet crepe to avoid an overload of savory flavors.
Of course, if you're not in the mood for a flavorful topped crepe, you can add a plain one to your order of soup or salad ($6.95, or add chicken, ham or turkey for $4 more). That's an extra $2 for the traditional wheat flour crepe or an extra $3 for the gluten-free buckwheat option.
An avid hiker, Menke plans to cover the walls with maps of Atalaya Mountain and other local trails. He chose the café's name because "atalaya" is the Spanish word for "watchtower."
"Really what I want it to be is a meeting place on the Plaza," Menke says. "They're meeting to walk their dogs and want a coffee, they're taking a bike ride or are pre-hike, post-hike, whatever it is, that they all meet here and go do their thing, go enjoy Santa Fe. I wanted something that meant kind of a lookout, a place where people can people-watch, and meet, and it's kind of a safe haven. Almost like a basecamp."
For the holidays, Café Atalaya offers seasonal gelato flavors such as gingerbread, pomegranate and pumpkin spice. Menke also plans to serve an apple pie-like crepe. Other items reportedly coming soon include gelato shakes and made-to-order crepe cakes. For an especially decadent drink, try the affogato ($6), espresso with vanilla gelato. If coffee's not your thing, the shop sells lemonade ($3) and various iced and hot tea options ($2.50-$5.25).
Menke makes the café's food for now, but says he'll soon pass the job to a new cook in order to focus on his next project. In September, the Historic District Review Board rejected Menke's proposal to develop Atalaya Restaurant and Wine bar on the building's balcony to preserve Plaza Galeria's mid-1950s facade as-is. All the same, Menke says the proposal will go to the Santa Fe City Council next month, and he still hopes to get the restaurant up and running next year.
"We feel confident that [city councilors] will see the benefits of having something that many European cities have," Menke explains, "Eateries on their balconies, accentuating our downtown Plaza experience with its architecture, its history, its food and people."
Plaza Galeria, 66 E San Francisco St., Ste. 11
8 am-6 pm Monday-Thursday;
8 am-8 pm Friday and Saturday;
9 am-6 pm Sunday