WHO’S IN CHARGE: 17 State Street Cafe in Newburyport doesn’t fit neatly into a culinary category. It’s a blend of finer dining with a comfortable diner feel. The food fuses authentic Southern cooking with simple and creative breakfast dishes. Owner Cathy Moulton says the customers are also a mix: older folks, teenagers, young families, blue-collar as well as white- collar workers.
Moulton has gained a reputation for her signature breakfast and lunch items, like the cinnamon swirl pancake that is caramelized and drizzled with icing, and a burger that is fashioned after the McDonald’s Big Mac. She has teamed up with Kip Dixon, a chef from Alabama, who adds some Southern flair to the evening menu, including honey jalapeno BBQ babyback ribs and Kentucky Bourbon steak tips.
“There’s a desire for Southern food in this area,” Moulton said. “It amazes me.”
THE LOCALE: Some historic items — including a vintage newsstand store sign for the former Fowle’s that is iconic in the Newburyport area — are on display, as well as a single red stool that Moulton said she recovered from her grandparent’s old ice cream shop on Merrimack Street.
The interior is sleek yet inviting, with dim lighting, marble counters, wood paneling, and diner-style booths. The cafe regularly hosts musical performances such as jazz and blues groups; Moulton said they are booked until August.
ON THE MENU: 17 State Street is known for its hearty, creative breakfast options, and Southern-style food for dinner. I couldn’t decide when to go; I am a breakfast junkie but I also love comfort food. So, I went twice.
This place is not for those who are trying to restrict their caloric intake. Although the restaurant serves healthier options such as an omelet with tomato, fresh basil pesto, and mozzarella, it will be hard to resist the salty, fried, sweet, and creamy comfort food.
For round one, I dug into the cinnamon swirl pancake, a sheet of eggy, fluffy pancake combined with the taste of a cinnamon bun ($5.29). This imaginative dish is indulgent, but not too sweet. Good luck finishing it. Some simpler options are available, like egg sandwiches and oatmeal.
In round two, my guest and I started by munching on some fried black-eyed peas with pancetta and onion ($5). A generous helping of this crispy, salted Southern treat came in a mason jar along with a refreshing stalk of celery. We also liked the fish tacos ($7 each), fresh, breaded catfish with lime accompanied by a sweet black bean salsa with cilantro slaw and chipotle tartar sauce, tucked inside a lightly grilled tortilla and served on a bed of lettuce. The sweetness of the black beans and cilantro is cut with the sharp tartar sauce, making for a savory dish that is certainly a step up from an ordinary fish taco.
For the entree, we had the Southern fried Statler breast of chicken ($17). The dish sounds simple, but if you order it, prepare yourself for a full-on Southern experience. The meal is served with tasso ham gravy, braised sweetened collard greens, and buttermilk garlic mashed potatoes that were a tad too salty and buttery for my liking. That said, I couldn’t stop eating them.
For diners who are able to handle dessert, try one of the cafe’s rich treats, such as the New Orleans-style bread pudding, complete with a helping of ice cream and topped with a praline sauce made with Jack Daniel’s whiskey ($6).
17 State Street Cafe, 17 State St., Newburyport. 978-948-3456. www.17statestreetcafe.com.Katherine Landergan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @klandergan.