My first visit did not start off well. I was told by a waiter to "sit anywhere," so I chose a small table near the front. After I seated myself, hung my jacket, unfurled the napkin and sipped the water, another waiter came by and told me I "had to move."
Later, I realized he wanted that table to slide into another to make a table for four. Explaining his request would have been OK, but just telling me I "had to move" clearly was not. Bad start.
On subsequent visits, service by the waitstaff was generally punctual but the kitchen was often too slow or fast in producing orders. When the cafe was busy, I got the impression that the kitchen was overwhelmed backing orders up.
Early one evening, however, the entrees appeared when we were not halfway through our appetizers. The server was intent on plunking the plates atop our first course but was shooed off by a waiter from across the room who ran to the rescue.
The cafe has been open since 1994, and not much has physically changed over the years. The large coffee roaster sits mid-space, fired up as needed. The high ceiling is dotted with skylights and gently whirling ceiling fans, and the walls are painted an earthy beige. Even the receipts still stamp the long-changed 415 area code on them. It could still be 1994, 2004 or 2014; the ambient space is rather timeless.
The area is subdivided with an espresso bar to the rear of the coffee roaster. The glass-and-wood storefront has articulated doors that are almost always open, making front-of-the-house dining a near-al fresco experience.
The food is pretty good overall, simple and straightforward, and it's easy to find something appetizing. The prices are sub-market and portions more than generous. No wonder University Cafe is always busy.
With tables inches apart, bits and fragments of conversation from adjoining tables float freely by. Several times I heard rave reviews for the cafe, such as "This is my favorite place," "Huge portion," "Can't beat these prices," and "Wow, the food looks great."
My menu choices at recent visits included the chicken pot pie ($10). It was a tad on the salty, soupy side but came with generous chunks of chicken, carrots, mushrooms, peas and asparagus under a thin elastic pastry crust. The accompanying dull salad greens were limp as a washcloth: fresh, perhaps, but not perky and crisp.
The frittata rustica ($12) took more than a half-hour to appear. It was tasty once I lit into the fluffy eggs, roasted red peppers, onions, spinach, tomato and bits of bacon with cheese melted over. A couple of thick home fries and toast accompanied. A personal happy meal available until 4 p.m. daily.
We were caught off guard by the presentation of the beet salad ($9). Usually, the beets in a beet salad are diced or thin-sliced, but these were thick and about the size of a small Frisbee. The whole beets these slices were taken from must have been the size of volleyballs. They came with a mini-mountain of salad greens. It could easily have been a meal in itself, had that been our intent.
The crab cake ($10) was golden and crispy outside and filled with loads of creamy Dungeness crab. The sauce, which was listed as curry, wasn't — or at least I couldn't detect any curry. Instead, the velvety red sauce was tomatoey and complemented the crab cake. Crispy leeks added a nice finishing touch.
Salmon risotto ($15) was a buttery, rich, well-conceived dish. The "risotto" was made from roasted butternut squash, allowing a texture that was slightly coarser and sweeter than risotto made from silkier and nuttier arborio rice. The dish was also made with wine, asparagus and parmesan cheese. Very tasty.
The steak stir fry ($12) of onions, peppers, large button mushrooms, julienne carrots, green beans and brown rice was an odd combination of ingredients that delightfully harmonized. The chunks of steak were teriyaki-tossed and fork-tender. It wasn't an identifiable ethnic Asian dish. Perhaps "pan-Asian" is a better description.
From the other side of the world, the spaghetti carbonara ($12) was especially good — a generous portion, with well-integrated ingredients. Despite the high marks, though, the pancetta wasn't crisped and contributed little to the flavors of an otherwise fine dish. Crisped pancetta, added to eggs and parmesan cheese, is what makes carbonara carbonara.
Dessert-wise, the chocolate cake ($5.50) was massive and gooey and more than satisfied my partner's craving for chocolate. The icing had been troweled on thick and was layered throughout the cake. The cake was served too cold, though, and was a tad on the dry side.
The apple tartlet ($5.50) was too chilled and dried out. It seemed to have been artfully conceived and executed, but left in the refrigerator about a day too long. Two bites were all I cared for.
The carrot cake ($4.95) was a prodigious multilayered affair. The cake had delectable flavors that were sweetish and nutty, but the thick smear of layers of icing swamped the effort. It was a challenge to fork some cake and get just a little dollop of frosting. When I finished eating, the remaining icing could have frosted another whole cake or two. Alas, all the desserts were too cold, drying them out and robbing them of flavor.
Overall, though, it's clear why University Cafe has been a popular spot for more than 15 years. It rates a wow on portion size with recession-pleasing prices. As for the service issues, no one seems to mind too much.
271 University Ave., Palo Alto
Sun.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: streetside
Party facilities: no
Noise level: noisy
Bathroom cleanliness: fair