General Store Cafe
39 West Street
Pittsboro, NC 27312
Review Date: July 11, 2009
Reviewers: Michael Pocinki, Lucy Moore, Kristine C., John C., Ricki Z., Gary Jordan, Shirley Phillips, George A., Donna A., John M., Donna R., Trish W., Robert R., Cynthia R., Missy Cooper, Jimmy Efird, Beth Levine
Not having been to the General Store Cafe (GSC) in quite a few years, I was struck, when I walked in, by the size of the place: What used to be a quaint cafe and gift shop is now a huge restaurant. Located in a building that was once an auto dealership, GSC expanded a year ago, increasing its size threefold, to about 9000 square feet. It now includes much more seating, plus a huge stage, on which is featured live music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (most with no cover charge).
We had a larger group than usual on our review evening, with 17 people in attendance. We sat together at one long table, in a room we had to ourselves–a room that connects the (old) front part of GSC to the spacious, newer dining room in the back.
Equally as striking to me as the size of GSC was the wide disparity in the reactions of our reviewers to our dinner tonight. Some raved and gave our highest rating of 5 in almost every category, while others gave ratings of 1 or 2 in certain categories. Some were bothered by the lack of vegan options on the menu.
The biggest complaint, though, was about the service. More than a third of tonight's reviewers wrote comments on their review sheets complaining about the speed of the service, describing it as everything from "slow" to "extremely slow" to "way too slow" to "unacceptably slow." By the same token, many reviewers described our waitress Lauren in complimentary terms: "helpful," "professional," "very friendly," etc. I appreciated her attentiveness, as well as her knowledge of the restaurant's vegetarian and vegan options. I was also impressed by the vigilance of a gentleman who came around several times to refill water glasses. I realized later that he was Vance, co-owner and general manager of GSC.
Though some reviewers tonight were displeased with the slowness of the service and the lack of vegan options on the menu, most everyone was pleased with the food quality. Three-quarters of us rated the Food category a 4 or above (on a scale of 1 to 5). Comments about the food included "fantastic," "delicious," "very good," "wonderful," and "amazing."
For me, an aspect of our TVS restaurant review outings that is equally as important as eating good vegetarian food is the chance to socialize with fellow vegetarians and those interested in vegetarianism. I am always surprised, when I attend group restaurant dinners, whether TVS or Meetup, by how rushed some folks seem to be to eat and go home, and how perturbed some are when the food does not arrive when they expect it should. I wonder if some diners have unrealistic expectations when they eat out in a big group, or if they do not realize how much work is involved in preparing a large number of entrees and serving them all at the same time–especially entrees that are adjusted/customized to be vegetarian or vegan.
In the case of tonight's dinner, those who ordered appetizers had something to eat fairly quickly, while those who ordered only entrees had longer to wait. Appetizers at GSC range in price from $3 to $11 and make up one-quarter of the GSC dinner menu. Several folks ordered the "Seasoned Oven Fries with Citrus Soy Mayo Dipping Sauce," at $5. That appetizer is vegan. Those who ordered the Fries did not comment on them, so I must assume from the overall high food ratings that they enjoyed them. All the appetizers are vegetarian (how often do you see that at a restaurant?), and about half are vegan. The "Organic Hummus Platter" includes hummus that is organic, homemade, and vegan. If the weather had been cooler, I would have been tempted to try the Corn Curry Soup, which was one of the soups of the day.
No one ordered the "GSC Local Tomato Salad," which was a special of the night. GSC makes an effort to use local ingredients, and even has its own organic garden out back.
The GSC menu includes several vegetarian salads, many made with organic baby greens. As someone who tries to eat a diet of only organic food, I am impressed when a restaurant has anything organic on its menu.
Those of us who ordered from the Entrees section of the menu received small side salads as part of our meal. Most opted for lemon tahini dressing and loved it. Ricki was pleased that GSC accommodated her request to substitute romaine lettuce for the baby greens. All the GSC salad dressings are homemade, including a sesame lime miso and a creamy garlic herb.
When I made our reservation for this review, I was pleased to learn that the GSC chef is vegetarian. Having noticed on the GSC website that there are always a few daily dinner specials (of the meat variety), I put in a polite request for a vegetarian special on the evening of our visit. Thus, when I entered GSC and saw on the specials board two meat entrees and one fish entree, I was disheartened. But I was reassured when our waitress Lauren informed us that she had arranged a special vegetarian entree for us: Organic Grit Cakes with Tofu.
Though that special vegetarian entree ($16) was not vegan, four of us ordered it: It was a plate of parmesan grits cakes (made with organic grits), tofu with creamy tomato sauce (organic tofu), and vegetable medley (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes). The tofu was boiled, pan seared, and then baked. Three of the four of us had the same reaction to the special: We loved the grits cakes (similar to polenta), and we liked the sauce for the tofu, but we found the tofu a bit tough. I had to use my knife to cut it. A few of us found the broccoli to be overcooked, but only slightly. I thought the vegetables needed some sort of sauce, or at least some lemon juice. But I dipped them in my extra lemon tahini dressing, and I was pleased with the result.
From the Entrees section of the menu, Lucy ordered the Ravioli ($15), with which she was not pleased. Lauren had told us that instead of the "Spinach Walnut Stuffed Ravioli with Roasted Red Pepper and Smoked Gouda Sauce" listed on the menu, tonight's ravioli filling was butternut squash plus some other ingredients. Lucy liked the sauce but said the ravioli had an undistinguished taste, which was not helped by being served at room temperature.
The other vegetarian item in the menu's Entrees section is the "Energy Bowl" ($15), which Lauren informed us is one of the restaurant's most popular items. It is a bowl of "all natural brown rice topped with seasonal steamed vegetables, fresh greens, baked marinated tofu, organic pinto beans, and roasted baby tomatoes and a side of sesame ginger sauce and organic bread." John M. and Donna R. enjoyed their Energy Bowl, which was enough food for the two of them to share. But Cynthia thought it needed some seasoning and wrote, "$15 seems a lot for veggies and rice and four small pieces of tofu."
The fourth and final section of the GSC menu–after Appetizers, Salads, and Entrees–is Burritos, with prices from $11 to $13. The meat burritos can be made vegetarian by substituting soy sausage or "tofu infusion" for the meat. All four burritos, including the "Pittsburrito with Spinach," can be made vegan by omitting cheese and sour cream. GSC uses Morningstar Farms brand soy sausage, about which Catering Director/Operations Manager Jorgie Brown informed me, "We have tried many soy sausages and felt that this one was the best fit for us." Morningstar soy sausage is not vegan, as it contains egg whites.
Ms. Brown was most helpful in my writing of this review, as she responded promptly to several emails I sent her with follow-up questions. For instance, she informed me that GSC is using the conventional variety of Morningstar soy sausage, as opposed to the organic one. (I suggested that she consider switching to the organic version, whose ingredient profile I think most diners would find preferable to the conventional one.) Ms. Brown assured me that the "tofu infusion" (offered as a meat substitute in the burritos) is vegan, as the tofu is infused with vegan vegetable stock.
Reviewer Donna A. found her spinach burrito to have just the right amount of spiciness. Beth got the "Mayan with NC Sweet Potato and Jerk Chicken" burrito, with the tofu infusion replacing the chicken: "I could barely taste the jerk sauce," wrote Beth, "but the sweet potato in it was excellent."
Midway through our meal, GSC served us complimentary basil-mint iced tea. I think everyone enjoyed the tea and appreciated the restaurant's generous gesture.
Desserts (all made in house) are not listed on the menu, but some can be found listed on the GSC website. The only vegan dessert available on the night of our review was fresh fruit. Those few of us who ordered dessert were pleased, especially with the low prices: $4.95 for a big piece of Raspberry Almond Butter Cake, $3.95 for Key Lime Pie.
One unexpected benefit of our food taking some time to arrive was that we got to hear the evening's live music, which began promptly at 8:30 pm (we began our dining adventure at 6:30 pm). What a pleasant surprise to hear live music that was not blasting: We could still communicate easily with each other even when the band began to play.
Lucy and I stayed late to listen to the band, which gave me time to look around at the restaurant. I enjoyed the eclectic nature of the surroundings, especially some of the unusual items for sale throughout the store. At the same time, I found the space a bit busy, with pieces of art hanging on the walls, from the ceiling, etc. Donna R. liked the "crafty artsy feel" of the place. Ricki described as "perfect" the ability to shop and eat and hear music all at the same time.
The newer (back) part of the restaurant retains the original concrete floors and high, exposed ceilings of the auto dealership that once occupied the space. That may not be to everyone's taste. I didn't mind too much the casual nature of the building itself, but I would have appreciated a few amenities such as tablecloths or cloth napkins. Lucy did not mind the paper napkins and in fact appreciated that "they have lots of napkins in holders on the table, as well as many vases of fresh-cut flowers."
I enjoyed the sixties pop music playing softly in the background (overhead) during the early part of the evening, but I must admit that I was perplexed when I heard the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" for the third time in an hour.
On your way in or out of GSC, be sure to pick up a bag or two of day-old (locally baked) Bread Shop brand bread or rolls for just $1.89 a bag.
For a restaurant that is non-ethnic, is located in a small town in rural North Carolina (Chatham County), and has "General Store" in its name, the General Store Cafe has a lot to offer to vegetarians (including vegan options). It is definitely not your typical country store or diner--far from it. The General Store Cafe is a small-town restaurant with a menu that contains 21 items. Of those 21 items, 13 are vegetarian, and 3 more can be made vegetarian/vegan. To me, that is a very impressive percentage of vegetarian choices!