The Root Cafe
After six years, two grants and a building expansion, dinner at LR’s favorite slow-food spot is finally ready to be served
To be honest, there’s really no rush. It’s the end of the work week, and I’m sitting on the patio of The Root Cafe with my wife, each of us relaxing with a much-deserved libation: her, a Sangiovese, and myself, a brown ale from Argenta’s Flyway Brewery, both served in squatty mason jars. It’s a little chilly, but between the pulled-down plastic weather curtains that line the building’s roof and the small electric heater right beside our table, we’re more than comfortable.
As I watch dishes going to various tables around the restaurant—a plate of deviled eggs here, a steaming bowl of chicken-and-andouille sausage gumbo there—I start to realize how hungry I am. I secretly want one of everything.
“I want one of everything,” I say to my wife. Well, I guess the secret’s out.
Even though we’re seated on The Root Cafe’s front porch, there’s a homey quality to the place that extends throughout. From the quaint and cozy front dining space to the newly added larger dining room in back, the space conjures up a comforting familiarity reminiscent of grandma’s house.
When the waiter comes over to take our entree order, he apologizes for our wait. It’s only then that I realize we’ve been sitting unattended for a few minutes. Jack Sundell, owner of The Root along with his wife, Corri, tells me later they’re still working out the kinks that come with transitioning from the counter service that’s been the standard at the restaurant to the full-fledged table service they’ve implemented for dinner.
But even when it comes to the counter service the Sundells’ crew has mastered for the day-to-day operations, waiting is a familiar concept when dining at The Root. The place has become immensely popular since opening in 2011, and it’s not at all uncommon to see a line of people stretching out the door on any given day during lunch. Thing is, however, that idea of having to wait, to be patient, for the good stuff? In a sense, that’s actually something that’s defined The Root since the beginning.
“Everything we’ve done has been slow and steady,” Jack says. We’re chatting across a table in The Root’s new dining room, and for the past 10 minutes, he’s been telling me the story of how The Root came to be—how he and Corri opened the little cafe six years ago this June after three years of fundraising and establishing a network of farmers and producers, all while working to raise the profile of local food. In fact, the spot where we’re sitting was actually part of the parking lot just over a year ago, and as I look around the room, I still find it hard to believe it was fashioned out of three modified shipping containers.
Before the building expansion, seating at The Root was, shall we say, intimate. The extra space has allowed both the restaurant’s customers and staff to stretch their legs a little bit. Another four shipping containers were added to the back of the building to expand the kitchen, allowing for an entire room dedicated to prep—a bit of a step up from the 4-foot table they’d been using before.
The notion of expanding The Root started to become a reality in the spring of 2015 when Jack and Corri applied for Chase Bank’s Mission Main Street Grant program and, out of 25,000 businesses across the country that applied that year, became one of 20 selected to receive a $150,000 grant. Soon after, the Sundells got to work. First, they had to purchase their building from their landlord Anita Davis, known in the area as “The Godmother of SoMa.” Then, just over a year ago, after the architectural plans were drawn up, Jack and Corri broke ground.
But instead of shutting down The Root and trying to blaze through construction in a couple of months, Jack and Corri decided to remain open and relegate the building process to the one night a week when the restaurant is closed. “It’s been basically a 52-day construction project that’s happened every Monday for a year,” Jack says. “It’s been a lot of work. We’d come on Monday and make a huge mess, then clean it up Monday night and open for breakfast at seven in the morning on Tuesday.”
“When we looked back at our history as a business and the way we’ve done things, that gradual approach made a lot more sense,” he explains.
When they noticed back in their first year of operation, for example, a trend of guests coming into the restaurant before the open sign was turned on, looking for coffee or some eggs and toast, they decided to add a breakfast menu to their offering. And when SoMa’s Bernice Garden was preparing to launch its Sunday farmers’ market, organizers approached area businesses about providing special offerings to coincide with the event. As a result, The Root started serving a Sunday brunch.
Through all these evolutions, though, the foundation that The Root was built on—a commitment to building a community through slow food—has remained the same. (It’s the reason they continue to source directly from local area farmers like Katie Short of Farm Girl Meats and Bob Barnhill of Barnhill Orchards, or through community supported agriculture programs like the New South Produce Cooperative.)
But there was still something Jack and Corri hadn’t tried, though they were anxious to: a dinner service. Which brings us back to that patio.
Before we know it, our server is setting our plates down in front of us, and they. Both. Look. Amazing. My entree is uncomplicated enough at heart—essentially a savory beef short rib with mashed potatoes—but here, it’s elevated with a slightly spicy romesco sauce, some tomato and a playful sprinkling of ground pecans. My wife decided to go with a bowl of the vegetarian gumbo. We do our best to identify all the ingredients in the mix, detecting rice (obviously), collard greens, onion, red pepper and celery. But, as a fungus fan, I’ve got my eye on the shiitake mushrooms topping the dish. My wife is sweet enough to let me have one, and I think I audibly moan as I take a bite.
It’s not my first time digging into dinner at The Root, and with each visit, I’ve been impressed by the creativity flowing out of the kitchen, which is all the work of the Root’s dinner-chef-slash-mad-genius, Jonathan Arrington. One night, he might serve crispy pork jowl plated with swaths of bright-green chimichurri, yellow butternut custard and burnt-onion aioli. The next week, that same jowl might be spiked with east-African berbere spices and served with collards, olive-oil cake and purple-hull relish. Last week, for example, my short rib dish was served as a ragu on a bed of stone-ground grits with tangy pickled green tomatoes and a sweet-and-sour relish.
The slight shift in the menu from week to week is based on the products available from the restaurant’s network of local farmers at any given time. The menu shakeup is also an effort to provide some variety and keep things exciting by changing the way certain items are served month to month and season to season.
“If you look at the menu four different times during the year—winter, spring, summer and fall—you’re going to see four quite different menus,” Jack tells me when we speak a couple days later.
Part of what makes dinner at The Root so appealing is that the dishes are familiar fare, often Southern standbys, elevated with a careful culinary mind. Traditional deviled eggs become Cubano-style with ham, swiss and dill pickle. Southern fried chicken becomes berbere-spiced hot fried chicken. It’s a balance that’s both refined and unique, but also accessible.
Despite the shift to a slightly more sophisticated menu in the evening hours, the atmosphere remains casual, even family-friendly.
“You’re doing a good job on those deviled eggs,” I overhear Jack say to a young boy having dinner with his family. “Everyone inside is really impressed with how much of those eggs you’ve eaten.” Later, Jack brings him a dessert with an extra scoop of ice cream to celebrate his achievement.
My wife and I decide we could use some dessert ourselves, and we end up going with an old reliable: New Orleans-style bread pudding with rum-soaked raisins and hard sauce (crafted by The Root’s resident sugar queen, Sara Slimp). Before we know it, it’s gone, and we’re already planning our next date night visit to The Root.
The more I think about it, the more I realize how much anticipation there has been and continues to be when it comes to The Root—how often one has to pause and wait before the goods are delivered. Whether that involves waiting for funds to be raised or construction to be completed; waiting in line for an amazing, carefully crafted lunch; waiting for a permanent dinner service to be fully up and running or—as Jack and Corri are all too familiar—waiting for seeds to take root in the soil and yield something beautiful.
And with all of it, the result is more than worth the wait.