I am amused by small mysteries, like the bend where a road once went around something, or the half-visible name chiseled in the granite of an old building. Each reminds me of the puzzles that are all around me, waiting to be explored, perhaps even solved.
Which was why I had to ask my server at Figtree’s Café in Venice how the place got its name. There were no actual fig trees visible, though one was painted on a wall, and none of the menu items contained figs. Could the place have been founded by someone named Figtree, perhaps?
Unfortunately, nobody who now works there knows the reason for the name – since the place opened in the 1970s and has changed hands many times, the history is lost. If I get very energetic, I may look up old ads and reviews to see if I can find a clue – but until then, I’ll be quite happy just dining there. The beachfront café offers ample opportunities for people-watching, and good things to eat while you do it.
The very best time to do this is happy hour, which for most people is at the end of the workday, but is at the beginning here. If you arrive between 8 and 9 a.m., everything is half price, and since the prices are moderate in the first place, this is a screamin’ deal.
I dropped in with a thrifty friend to find Figtree’s about half full but already interesting – people of various ages and demographics rubbed shoulders and enjoyed a cool but sunny day on the terrace. (There is an indoor dining area, but I have never experienced it – it would have to be mighty cold for me to forsake the beach view.)
I was attracted to the cornmeal pancakes until I noticed the eggs bandelier – poached eggs on those same pancakes with black bean chili, roasted peppers, feta cheese, salsa and greens. This put a whole bunch of things I liked on the same plate, and though I was a bit concerned that it would be a chaos of flavors, I had to try it. It was just the right side of chaos – lots of toppings on good, crispy corncakes, but not so much that it felt like they had dumped everything from the refrigerator just because they had it handy.
The corncakes weren’t swamped, and the peppers and greens came through clearly. I will probably order corncakes sometime just to enjoy the uncomplicated flavor, but this was excellent.
My companion decided on eggs Lulu – scrambled with chicken-apple sausage, spinach, and pesto, with fried potatoes on the side. This was uncomplicated compared to my entrée, but still interesting. The spinach and pesto were the dominant flavors, but the eggs and sausage were more than just background. We enjoyed our breakfasts and some decent coffee while watching the Venice street life flower, and counted it an excellent morning repast.
I came back a few days later for lunch and decided to explore an element of the previous breakfast: the eggs bandelier had what was called a black bean chili as one of the toppings, but the flavor had seemed submerged in the mix. I had a cup of the chili to start and immediately realized that this wasn’t chili by any usual definition, but a nice black bean soup. There was no flavor of coriander or cumin and no chili heat – it was a good black bean soup, but not a chili.
For lunch I had decided on a turkey Reuben sandwich, notwithstanding the fact that a real Reuben is made with corned beef. Roasted turkey isn’t a credible substitute for corned beef, but it was tasty on its own merits. If you want authenticity then look elsewhere, but if you’d like a delicious grilled turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, this will hit the spot. I had ordered it intending to have a light meal and take half of the sandwich home, but somehow it disappeared.
A green or Caesar salad was offered as a side, and I picked the Caesar. The dressing was mild, with just a hint of garlic and a wisp of Parmesan. I prefer a robust Caesar, but this was light and fresh, in keeping with the healthy style that is the signature here.
Figtree’s offers very good meals with an ocean view at a reasonable price, which borders on the miraculous – how they do it is at least as much a mystery as the genesis of their name. I may never know who named the place and why, but I will happily be back for more good food with boardwalk flair.
Figtree’s is at 429 Ocean Front Walk in Venice – street parking or nearby beach lot. Theoretically open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily – closes in winter if unusually cold. Beer and wine served, wheelchair access good, children welcome. 310-392-4937.