The Hill Street Cafe is the quintessential around-the-corner neighborhood eatery, right down to the smiling, sociable waitresses and Valentine’s Day decorations that look suspiciously like reconstituted Christmas decorations.
Coming here at noon on a weekday is like walking into one of those small-town diners you always see in movies, where no one has to actually order because the servers already know what everyone wants.
Because it’s located across the street from the government center, at lunchtime the place fills to the brim with county employees, meaning a wait for a booth or a seat at the counter for a solo stranger such as myself, although it probably won’t be long before I have my own specially reserved seat here. (I just moved in around the corner.)
As for the food itself, it’s pretty much secondary to the act of eating it at the restaurant. The menu is an appropriately down-home mixture of standard breakfast items — omelets, pancakes, steak’n’eggs — sandwiches, burgers and so-called “country specialties” like Summer Garden Quiche and grilled liver’n’onions.
My selection for the afternoon was a roast beef sandwich topped with Ortega chilies and a side of fried zucchini. The zucchini arrived seconds before the main course, thick and scalding hot. Picking it up with my fingers proved difficult initially, so I went the fork route and ended up dropping the thing into the vat of ranch dressing it came with, forcing me to fish it out. This is when sitting at an open counter rather than in the sanctuary of a booth becomes a detriment, because if you’re a culinary retard like me, you end up embarrassing yourself for a packed audience.
But if you don’t sit at a counter, you miss the social aspects of the dining experience. You don’t get to see the hefty individual who plops himself down, says hello to practically everyone who walks by, demands a water with no lemon and is immediately asked by the waitress, “Hamburger with no pickle, right?” (He’d have a surprise this day, though: a pastrami!) Hill Street is filled with folks like this, who must go there four times a week and get the same thing, with all their little additions and subtractions, every time. It’s sort of fun to observe these interactions.
Anyway, the zucchini was great once it cooled down. The roast beef sandwich was nothing special — unobjectionable but more or less standard fare, and the chilies did little to spark the taste. Along with the sandwich came a batch of curly fries that were really no better than Jack in the Box’s. No word on how the guy next to me’s adventure into pastrami-land went.
Again, though, the food isn’t really the point. You go to feel a sense of community and to feel as if that idea of a self-contained neighborhood still exists in modern society. Without hearing a waitress politely yell in the ear of an elderly patron “You want some more gravy on your turkey?” you might think there was no such thing as human interaction anymore.