Connie’s Café & Lounge
323 Cedar St., Sandpoint,
You Don't Miss Your Water When Its Gravy
The rain-drenched Sandpoint streets were as eerily absent of people as the creeks and beaches that surround the town were lacking in water. Q. and I were spending a recent grey Sunday afternoon milling around North Idaho’s hippest city and we were bothered by how the normally lush waterways seemed to have run completely dry, outlining the lake edges with ugly patches of brown dirt and sand. Entire docks and marina systems were sitting on the dry lake bottom. A troupe of beeping numismatists with metal detectors hunted for treasures in places where they would normally find themselves twenty feet under the surface of Lake Pend Oreille. Was this tragic state of Sandpoint’s aquatic beauty a natural, normal occurrence, we wondered, or had something gone terribly wrong?
When Connie’s Café and Lounge locked its doors indefinitely in 2006 people felt a similar sense of unease. It just wasn’t right, such a classic and beloved gathering place once bustling with friendly faces, now just sitting there empty. After all, Connie’s had been attracting diners and drinkers from far and wide with its kitschy corner sign since evolving from a gas station into Conrad Balch’s Café in 1955. That massive sign, resplendent with red neon, campy retro typefaces and Vegas glamour is as much a part of the Sandpoint landscape as the creeks and lakeshores themselves. Having been a guiding light downtown for over fifty years, it was as unsettling to see it dark as it was to see dry land where ducks once swam.
Fortunately, former employees Jenny Jaeger and Donna Brundage felt the same way and after some fresh paint therapy and a menu overhaul, reopened Connie’s in May of last year. The girls knew what worked on the original menu and what didn’t so they were able to save some popular old favorites while making room for some much-needed updates. As far as menu specifics, I can only be vague and work from memory. Annoyingly, I lost the photocopy of the menu that our waitress so graciously provided me with after putting it down to snap photos of the neon sign and driving off without it.
The family-style menu is large and varied, full of delicious sounding things with cute, interesting names which, unfortunately, I can’t quite recall. There are oodles of yummy breakfast options, including the usual staples as well as some standout specialty omelets and skillets. I do remember seeing the Mariner Special, which is Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, but I was in more of a lunch mood. A plethora of burgers and sandwiches are listed, and I recollect seeing a section of lunch wraps, some humongous salads, and some home made soups, chilis and chowders. A quick browse of the dinner menu revealed lots of classic comfort cuisine of the meat and potatoes variety.
I’d felt a need to visit the “boy’s lounge” since leaving Coeur d’Alene 45 minutes earlier, and on my way through the back hallway to the restroom, I paused for a moment to peer through a grated door and check out the goings-on in the attached bar. I could hear drunken voices and the dull clank of pool balls but could see only vague smoky movements in the dark. Suddenly, the door swooshed open and a beer-breath guy in a white cowboy hat nearly knocked me sideways. “Coming in?” he grimaced, leering at me through one good eye. “Um, no. Wrong door.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt compelled to discuss a restaurant’s bathroom before, but I have to mention that Connie’s was so scary, so unclean, and so utterly unappetizing that I nearly told Q. we were out of there. The restaurant does share its facilities with sloppy drunk lounge-goers, but that left a bad first impression that’s easy to fix. Clean it, kids!
To their credit, the restaurant area itself seemed sufficiently neat and grunge-free. Q. and I had expected the atmosphere inside to match the retro-camp style of the neon sign, but except for the electric green vinyl-and-chrome barstools, the interior is much more elegant than that. Massive, ornate wooden built-in fixtures, walls cluttered with historic photos, local artwork, and old advertisements, and dim lighting create a lodge-like sense of comfort and relaxation.
It was so quiet in Connie’s that afternoon, just a couple of other tables occupied and a gaggle of very young staff milling around. In fact, I wondered aloud to Q. at one point “Where are the grown-ups?” Not that these kids didn’t do a good job. Service was absolutely great and the food was the most memorable thing of all. I’d ordered “Brian’s Almost Famous BBQ Pork Sandwich” and it was as if the cook had cut a pork tenderloin into huge, rough chunks, tossed them in gobs of thick, homemade barbecue sauce and served them on a fresh, perfectly toasted white bun. It should indeed be famous, it was tangy and tasty and the fries were so good, I had to repeatedly stab Q. with a fork to keep him from snatching them all off my plate.
Q.’s “Tow Truck” was a breakfast mish-mash of eggs, hash browns, peppers, and gravy served in a miniature metal skillet that he said made him “feel special.” Aw. What was truly special was that gravy, which I had to steal several bites of so that I could rank it on the Get Out gravy scale. It was peppery and scrumptious, scoring at least 8 out of 10 for sure. We finished with a huge slice of made-from-scratch chocolate cream pie that was so rich; Q. could only make it three bites deep, leaving me to perform a mercy killing on the rest. Refreshingly simple in execution and presentation, our meals were free from culinary frou-frou but high in flavor and quality. Like Sandpoint’s water level, hopefully we will return someday soon.