And then there are restaurants like the Bayleaf Café, where owner Seth Radford is almost always on-site and as likely as not to be splattered with sauce, gravy or grease.
I’ve never been to the Bayleaf Café when Radford wasn’t working and, long before the place opened, he and his family and staff (they’re the same thing, as you will see) put months and months of sweat, muscle and tears into building the restaurant. The establishment—formerly home to Incantations Peruvian restaurant—had to be gutted and rebuilt from scratch. But then, Radford likes to do everything from scratch—especially cooking.
“Scratch food” is what he calls the “cuisine” (a term he’d never use to describe his food) at Bayleaf Café. “Everything is made from scratch, every day,” he says. And much of what you’ll find on the Bayleaf Café menu consists of recipes handed down from grandparents and great-grandparents. The meatloaf, for example, is the same recipe Radford’s great-great-grandmother used.
At first glance, the Bayleaf menu might seem unfocused: There’s breakfast served all day, Southern-style comfort food and a seemingly odd peppering of Asian dishes like coconut shrimp tempura, lemongrass pork and chicken adobo. But, once you get to know the Bayleaf Café’s owners—and they make a point of knowing all their customers—it begins to make sense. Seth hails from Alabama, while his wife, Haylen, is Asian. So, since family recipes are the foundation of Bayleaf’s culinary gestalt, it makes sense to find blackened catfish, chickenfried chicken and cheese grits on the same menu with spring rolls and bulgogi. At the Bayleaf Café, you’ll find a melting pot of flavors with one common theme: Virtually everything there can be classified as homecooked comfort food. Don’t go looking for three-dimensional architectural art on your plate. This isn’t food to ogle; it’s food to eat.
On my first visit, Radford insisted I try the meatloaf. As I mentioned, it’s his great-great-grandmother’s recipe, with one tweak: A cook working in the Bayleaf kitchen one day wrapped the meatloaf in bacon, a move that Radford saw as a desecration of the generations-old formula. But, once he tasted the bacon-wrapped loaf, he had to admit it was an improvement on great-great-grandma’s original recipe, so it stuck. That delicious, rib-sticking meatloaf ($7.99), like most of the entrees at Bayleaf Café, comes with a choice of two side dishes, making for a very cheap, generously portioned meal. Bayleaf sides include cole slaw, collard greens, hoppin’ john (spicy black-eyed peas), grilled corn, mashed potatoes, cheese grits, macaroni and cheese, french fries, stir-fried veggies, green salad and country gravy.
Like most things at Bayleaf Café, the hours, too, are a bit unusual. The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch (with breakfast served all day) Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m.–6 p.m. But on Fridays and Saturdays, Bayleaf morphs into a 24-hour eatery. Radford opens the restaurant at 6 a.m. Friday morning and doesn’t close it until 6 p.m. Sunday, making it one of the few downtown dining destinations where you can gather for a late-night/early morning breakfast after the bars close. The place is mobbed in the wee hours, as bartenders and restaurant workers make a beeline for Bayleaf when they finish work.
Stroll into Bayleaf Café, and you’ll find counter seating adjacent to the open kitchen. “The kitchen is where all the action happens, and I think it’s important to share that part,” says Radford. He adds, “That’s half of our staff and half of our family, and we wanted them to be up front.” Servers know the customers, customers know each other, and the entire scene seems like a big family gathering. But, given the undeniably delicious home-style fare and the friendly service at Bayleaf Café, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
One of the best Bayleaf Cafe dishes is the chicken adobo ($6.99), a Filipino dish. It’s simple, but sensational. According to Radford, they simmer chicken thigh meat in soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, ginger and garlic “forever,” until the chicken is infused with the braising sauce and subtle flavors. It’s served in a bowl atop steamed white rice, with crisp stir-fried vegetables on the side. I could eat Bayleaf’s adobo a couple times a week and lately, I’ve been doing exactly that.
But, man cannot live on adobo alone. So, I also opt occasionally for the catfish po’ boy ($8.99 w/one side). It’s a thick, jumbo-size catfish filet dipped into an egg wash and then coated with seasoned cornmeal and served on a hero-type roll with homestyle cole slaw, tomato and lettuce. Add a few splashes of Tabasco, and you’ve got some mighty fine (and messy) eatin’—especially with Bayleaf’s mac & cheese or hoppin’ john on the side. Another excellent option is the barbecued shrimp with cheese grits ($7.99)—large shrimp smothered in a zippy Southern-style barbecue sauce with a large serving of decadent, creamy, cheesy grits.
There’s really only one way to sum up my feelings about this welcome new addition to the downtown dining scene: Hallelujah, and pass the country gravy!
159 S. Main