In the wise words of that late, great philosopher Aaliyah, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again, you can dust it off and try again, try again.” Actually, technically speaking, Michael Hanes’ first venture into the restaurant world, the 4th Street Pantry, located in the brick storefront a block and a half north of Sherman Avenue on Fourth Street was quite a success.
The 24-hour diner was quite often packed to standing-room-only proportions, even in the wee hours of the night, and I never heard one complaint from anyone about the food, nor did I receive any e-mails from the usual negative Nellies telling me how rotten I was for giving it a glowing review (yeah, Mom, I’m talking about you).
Then suddenly one dreary morning, the place went dark, the doors were locked and the only clue was a sign saying “closed due to technical difficulties.” Rumors swirled, but basically the reason for the closure boils down to something most of us can relate to: a shortage of moolah. Exact details of Hanes’ financial woes are unknown, but to sum it up, too much cash went into overhead and maintaining an overly large, around-the-clock staff. “I know exactly what I did wrong and how not to do it again,” Hanes told me on my recent visit to the newly reopened diner, which he rechristened the Kootenai Cafe, perhaps in an attempt to shake off any lingering bad juju. A reduction in operating hours and staff, along with a strong sense of perspective, should hopefully keep the doors open this time.
Otherwise, not a lot of changes have taken place, other than the addition of a salad bar in the back corner and some shuffling around of booths and tables to allow for a bit more seating.
For the time being, Kootenai Cafe will be a breakfast and lunch only sort of situation, with plans to expand back into a 24-hour diner at some point later on. It may actually happen sooner than later, according to Hanes, at least on an occasional basis. “I’ve already got the itch to do that,” he told me, “I just love the excitement of the late-night crowd.” That’s a rather nice way to refer to hungry loudmouth drunks, but regardless, Hanes says he might open his doors to them as soon as this weekend, and if that goes well, open-24-hour weekends might become a regular thing.
The main reason why the 4th Street Pantry became such an instant hit was the addictively high quality of the food, and happily, Kootenai Cafe’s menu is pretty much identical to that of its predecessor. Breakfast highlights include The Canfield, which is hash browns covered in country gravy accompanied by a hollandaise-smothered ham-and-cheese omelet, and the Appleway Cakes, which are pancakes folded with red applesauce and topped with honey cream cheese.
The latter was a favorite of mine from the Pantry days, since I’m a full-on candy junkie, and the delicious red applesauce is created using melted Red Hots cinnamon candies. Another incomprehensibly divine favorite is their Kootenai Kristo, their version of that oh-so-rare and supreme creation, the Monte Cristo sandwich. Whoever thought up the idea of taking an entire ham, turkey, and cheese sandwich, dipping it in batter and submerging it into the deep fryer ought to have a national holiday named after them. Kootenai Cafe does theirs perfectly, layering on the batter extra thick, frying it to a crispy golden brown, and serving it with a side of sweet strawberry jam.
Your arteries might groan, but your tummy will shriek with delight.
Kootenai Cafe’s lunch spread also includes a California Chicken Sandwich, with avocado, Swiss cheese and honey mustard, a tuna salad-stuffed tomato, a monstrous Reuben sandwich, and a Salmon Burger, all served with the same “endless” french fries that became legendary before the close of the Pantry. With its awesome homestyle cuisine and comfortable atmosphere, it’s quite good to have the place percolating again.
Somewhat humbled by his learning experience, Hanes is reinvigorated and back in the ring for round two of the restaurant rumble, and as long as he can stay away from money messes he’ll have a definite knockout on his hands.