Review No. 41: Café 501
650 United Dr., Suite 100
23.5 percent finished reviewing Conway restaurants
She Said: Once again, Ruud called me to join him for lunch, and even though I was “trying to reduce” in anticipation of a Mexican vacation (or maybe because of that effot), I said, “YES!” We decided to try this new restaurant in the growing microeconomy of Baptist Health hospital in southern Conway.
He Said: With new restaurants popping up all over town, it’s hard to know what to try first, but we settled on this one.
She Said: The décor here is decidedly Contempo Office Park. It’s comfortable, but there is something efficient about the look and feel of the restaurant. We sat at a booth looking out on a field that will not long be a field, and the recently built energy of the space fits right in with a growing area of Conway. There is a great deal of gray and beige, with orange accents and large, office-like windows in a clean, open space.
He Said: Yeah, it actually has kind of a fast-food feel to it, which is not lessened by the fact that you order at the counter. It’s nice enough inside, but your view is of the hospital and of what will soon become a kind of Flatlandia that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. in a year or two.
She Said: This place seems to have a full bar! But, even for you, dear readers, on this day I was not interested in a cocktail or glass of wine mid-day, so I will have to go back. What I did have was unsweetened iced tea, for which I received more offers of refills than I could use. It was tasty, with fresh lemon wedges in the refreshing drink.
He Said: Iced tea, unsweetened, for me as well. There are other things available, but the tea was fine, and there was plenty of it, as they came back to refill it several times.
She Said: I labored a long time over the menu, because I didn’t know what to expect from this new place, so I didn’t go with anything in mind, and the menu had a number of appealing items from several friendly categories: wraps, flatbreads, pizzas, burgers, paninis and salads, as well as appetizers that could probably make a lovely lunch all on their own. Honestly, I dithered, which is something I usually leave to you, Ruud. But in the end I went with the thing that first provoked great hope and affection, the chicken-salad panini, which is served on a croissant, along with fries. I had no regrets.
The croissant is on the panini list, I guess, because they lightly toast it before serving (the panini items are served on various breads), and now I know that my eternal favorite chicken-salad-on-a-croissant lunch is made all the better by just barely browning that buttery bread product. I’m a connoisseur of chicken salad (along with sushi and cosmopolitans), so I’m always both hopeful and skeptical when it arrives. This chicken salad did not disappoint: The chicken was tender and tasty, and the salad includes grapes. GRAPES! (All the best chicken salads do.) I was delighted. The French fries were crispy and golden and tender inside, and there was a nice portion, but not too many. I ate all the fries, as I am wont to do, but I couldn’t finish my sandwich. It was delicious, but altogether the meal was very filling.
He Said: Yeah, you have to quit dithering, Jones, it’s so embarrassing when you do (cough, cough). While the setup here is fast-food like, the food itself is a significant cut above the strong fast-food assault on your taste buds. I was torn between the Pesto Grilled Chicken Sandwich and the Chicken Curry Pita, and so asked the advice of the man who seemed to be in charge, who came down hard on the side of the sandwich. This was described as grilled chicken, pesto, lettuce and Swiss cheese on lettuce on Ciabatta bread. The bread was delicious and the chicken tender and flavorful, the pesto and cheese giving the sandwich a delicate, satisfying flavor.
On his day, they also were serving a soup that does not appear on their online menu, and I never like to turn down a good soup when I can get one. So I opted for a cup of this lentil soup. It was a nice vegetarian side that proved hearty and flavorful and a good balance to the chicken sandwich, though the two things together turned out to be quite a bit of food. It did not go away hungry.
She Said: This place has excellent service. I have to say, I don’t love the order-at-the-counter model (you peruse the menu on the boards or on paper, and then you order from and pay the cashier, head to your table and wait for the food to be brought to you), mostly because of what happened when we first arrived at Café 501: We lingered in the entryway gaping over the menu because we couldn’t decide what we wanted. A manager/proprietor came over and helped us in a relaxed and friendly way, explaining some of the menu items to us, telling us what offerings were his favorite, etc. He didn’t rush us and talked with us until we were ready to go the counter and order. We thought maybe this was a special touch for visitors because it is a new restaurant, but our entire experience was flavored by this level of persona interaction, friendliness and helpfulness. A staffer brought ketchup, mustard and mayo to our table when we sat down to wait for our food, asked us what we ordered and told us why he liked those items. Our drinks were refilled as much as we wanted, and we didn’t have to get up or ask for it. So, even though it is a “quick-serve” restaurant with counter service, I felt like I could have had anything I asked for with no waiting. Kudos!
He Said: Yes, the fast-food vibe of the setup was belied by the service in the place, from the manager’s initial greeting and helpfulness to the attention that they paid to us after we sat down—three different people checked on our table and were ready to help with anything we might need. Jones thought it was a “new-restaurant-trying-to-impress-patrons” phenomenon, I actually thought somebody may have recognized us and realized we were doing a review (though that was probably an overestimation of the reach of our little column), but they did seem to be paying just as much attention to everyone, so this is a place that combines a fast-food lunchtime quickness with a four-star-restaurant type service.
What We Got and What We Paid: Chicken-salad panini with side of French fries, pesto grilled chicken sandwich and lentil soup and two iced teas for $24.21.
She Said: I’d love to sample more on the menu, but I think I’ll succumb to this expert chicken salad croissant more often than not, though next time I’ll get an adult beverage. Great food! Friendly service! A great addition to Conway’s restaurant scene.
He Said: I expect to be back, perhaps to try that chicken curry pita next time. This is going to be a great place for close-by hospital workers or visitors to relax in when they want to get away, and a different, casual choice for Conwegians to dine, particularly for lunch.
So…He Said and She Said: Go here for a delicious lunch, friendly welcoming service, and maybe a cocktail during happy hour!
Editor's Note: Eat It, Conway is produced by local author Jay Ruud and his wife (poet and novelist Stacey Margaret Jones). The couple has begun an attempt to eat at and review, every restaurant in Conway, Arkansas. The Log Cabin Democrat and thecabin.net are publishing Eat It, Conway with permission from the authors. Visit them online at jayruud.com and on Facebook at Eat It, Conway. In addition to restaurant reviews, Ruud authors movie reviews on the site.