Cafe Sonder’s Contemporary American Cuisine

Lynn Cline - December 7, 2016

"You can taste the tradition..."

When the Zia Diner closed its doors earlier this year, Santa Fe lost a longtime dining institution. Many wondered what could possibly take its place. But those worries subsided when the family that owns the beloved Plaza Cafe and Plaza Cafe Southside announced they'd be opening a new eatery serving locally driven contemporary American cuisine.

Cafe Sonder debuted this fall, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner and a menu that roams the globe, with such dishes as the Japanese Farmhouse Breakfast, made with seasoned rice with togarashi (chile), smoked tofu, an eight-minute egg, house made pickles, marinated shiitake mushrooms and nori; and the Mediterranean Fishermen's Stew,featuring rock cod, white shrimp, calamari, clams and crostini in a saffron broth. There's plenty of Greek fare, too—from the Cafe Sonder Greek salad to the gyro pita and pita with Mediterranean spreads—reflecting the heritage of Daniel Razatos, who's owned the Plaza Cafe since 1947, and his family of restaurant entrepreneurs.

Stand outside of the building and you'll note that the only difference from the Zia Diner's era is the new sign, a vintage style neon sign displaying the restaurant's name. Step inside, though, and you're in a whole new world, an airy contemporary space with wood floors instead of carpeting, modern tables and sleek metal chairs  in cherry red as well as silver and black. Red accents abound, from the flowers in wooden planters on the tables to the red lights that resemble origami hanging from the high ceiling.

And for those pondering whether Sonder is a family name in the Razatos family, a chalkboard sign at the entrance defines the word, which is an entirely invented term from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online compendium of new words for powerful emotions that don't yet exist in the English language. Koenig, a graphic designer and filmmaker, defines “sonder” as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness.”

Take a seat at any table or booth (some remain from the Zia days), look around at your fellow diners and you'll start to get the meaning of the restaurant's name with the realization that each random diner is enjoying a meal as vivid and complex as the one you're about to order. That's because Cafe Sonder's chef, Jon Helquist, brings a wealth of experience to his new job, having relocated to Santa Fe after cooking for nearly 30 years at some of the top Bay Area restaurants, including Berkeley's storied Chez Panisse, where he spent seven years. He also worked at Oliveto, focusing on authentic, rustic Italian cuisine, so there are some delectable pasta dishes on the menu here, too, including penne vegetable pasta, loaded with peppers, onions, tomato, basil, oregano, Parmigiano Reggiano, calabacitas, and garlic, and Alfredo pasta with garlic and parsley and optional chicken or shrimp.

There's one menu for both lunch and dinner, and it includes some classic comfort dishes such as steak frites, a New Mexico hanger steak with demi-sauce, arugula, bistro fries, and blue cheese, Cafe Sonder Roast Chicken with baby greens, basmati rice, and red pepper relish. You can also order small plates—Greek roasted almonds and citrus-marinated olives, bistro fries with black pepper, lemon zest and parsley, flash-fried calamari and more.

You'll notice that Cafe Sonder offers no traditional New Mexican fare on the menu, simply because the family doesn't want to compete with its other restaurants. Instead, you'll find such dishes as red chile roasted pork ribs and the Cafe Sonder Hamburger with lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, onion, and green chile on a house-made bun. There's also the New Mexican Bison Burger with Lettuce, tomato, onion, blue cheese, and jalapeño on a house made bun. And for breakfast, you can order the black bean and chorizo breakfast burrito scrambled eggs, cheddar, sour cream, potatoes and pico de gallo.

Cafe Sonder plans to open a gastropub in the Zia's old bar area, once it secures a liquor license. On tap will be a rotating selection of artisan wines, local craft beers as well as imported ales, and seasonal house-made aqua frescas, along with burgers, pizza and other pub fare.

The prices here are purposefully affordable, as the Razatos family wants to offer quality food made with local ingredients at affordable prices to a regular crowd of locals as well as visitors to their newest eatery. “You can taste the tradition” is the motto for Cafe Sonder, and indeed, some 70 years of tradition are rooted in this restaurant, dating to1947 when Razatos opened the Plaza Cafe. The family traditions are palpable in their newest eatery, from the delicious food to the quality of service.

Photo credit - Cafe Sonder