Since it quietly opened in late spring, Café Cito (3500 Chestnut Ave.,  682-9701, cafecitobmore.com) seems to have built a steady following. It may be just one more choice in the carnival of restaurants that is Hampden of late, but it’s a good choice—especially if you’re in the mood for an inventive meal in a no-fuss atmosphere.
Dave Sherman has created a restaurant that suits his lifestyle, opening for leisurely breakfast and lunch throughout the week, serving brunch and dinner on weekends. There are no craft cocktails and no wine list—it’s BYO. Exposed brick, walls painted in aubergine and gray, plain marble-topped tables, and Eames-inspired molded wood chairs decorate the clean, spare interior. There’s a carryout counter decorated with wood shingles, showcasing cases of pastries and sweets; there’s a case for cold drinks. Café Cito almost looks more like a sandwich shop than a fine-dining joint.
Unassuming, however, does not mean unambitious. Sherman has worked at some high-end places—notably for the acclaimed Spanish chef Daniel Oliveira in San Francisco, and at Bond Street in New York City. Sherman, a Louisville, Kentucky native, worked as a line chef for the Karzais—at both Tapas Teatro and b—before launching his own venture, an enterprising Spanish-Japanese fusion called Nasu Blanco, in Locust Point in 2006. The restaurant, which struggled for two years before closing its doors, may have been a bit too chi-chi for a neighborhood that was just beginning to embrace the well-heeled Silo Point set. Sherman also admits he bit off a pretty big mouthful as chef/owner. “I couldn’t keep up,” he laments. “The front of house and business side was lacking.”
He’s not going to make that mistake again.
Café Cito is right at home in Hampden. For one thing, it’s staked out a spot on Chestnut, where the Charmery is luring folks around the corner from the Avenue, soon to be joined by a new French bistro and—at some point, we’ve been told—Paulie Gee’s pizzeria. It’s a burgeoning restaurant row. For another, Hampden could use a good breakfast spot, and Café Cito could fill that void well.
In the morning (well, all day, really), Café Cito pours Stumptown coffee from a Portland-based roaster. Options include pour-over, Chemex, French press, and drip, but mocha caramel macchiato lovers will have to go elsewhere: There’s no cappuccino machine. In addition to the usual array of high-carb breakfast snacks—scones, croissants, a chocolate-cardamom muffin, available on weekends—the café has excellent breakfast sandwiches ($4-$6) that vary by season, as do the lunchtime sandwiches ($10-$11).
It’s easy to let the breakfast hour slink into lunchtime at Café Cito. The friendly staff has a light touch, so it’s easy to hang with a laptop (yes, there’s WiFi) or chat with a friend long after the coffee’s gone cold without anyone suggesting you’re overstaying your welcome.
At dinner, service is equally friendly, if a bit more attentive. Water glasses are kept full, and wine is happily uncorked, with a $5 per table—not per bottle—charge.
The Spanish-inspired dinner menu shifts from week to week, but staples include the paella—vegetarian or not ($11, $16)—steamed mussels ($12) with shallots, saffron, and parsley in sofrito, and the butifarra ($9), white beans with smoked duck sausage and chorizo.
The three mains (here called “medium” plates; there are no large) we ordered on a recent early autumn evening shared some ingredients, but were entirely distinct, each proffering its own flavor character. The butifarra had a warm, aromatic, wintery flavor, almost cinnamon-y, while the seafood paella we chose had a tangy bite. The traditional Spanish rice dish also contained chorizo, along with scallops and mussels, and a bite of pimenton—the smoked paprika essential to Spanish cuisine. Finally, the seared scallops ($15) were nestled with seasonal roasted corn in a cream sauce, sweet and rich, complemented by a salty crunch of bacon and a touch of jalapeno heat.
The evening’s desserts were likewise seasonal. We ordered “peaches and cream”—juicy fresh picked peaches with soft basil-laced ricotta cheese. The plate was dotted with toasted almonds.
We’d started the meal with fresh gazpacho, a melée of fresh heirloom tomatoes and micro basil, drizzled with parsley oil and dotted with oily marcona almonds—also seasonal. We also shared a warm mushroom salad, a mix mushrooms tossed with roasted red peppers, arugula and goat cheese. When the check came, we experienced reverse sticker shock: Three dined well for under $100, not including the wine we’d ported in from the Wine Source around the corner.
On a recent Saturday morning, we thought we’d stop by for a bite to eat before the Hampden Farmers Market. It was 9 a.m.—in my mind, a leisurely hour for a weekend breakfast. The place was closed. It opens at 11 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. This is the harshest critique we can come up with.
Café Cito is open Tuesday, thursday, and sunday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.