By Robin Garr
“We do not have cats,” a sign in the front window of Alley Cat Cafe’s little dining room warns, perhaps to ward off disappointment from visitors expecting to delight in a cat cafe with cute kittens jumping on the tables.
There are, in fact, a few ceramic cats on a tchotchke shelf in a corner. But Alley Cat Cafe is best known as a destination for delicious, affordable breakfast and lunch, attracting crowds on Middletown’s old Main Street for 21 years.
It’s been almost that long since I last reviewed Alley Cat Cafe, and looking over my 2003 review, it appears that hardly anything has changed. The casual, homey decor is about the same, most of the menu selections remain unchanged. The room is as neat as a pin, with a big green Health Department “A” and a 100-point score on the wall to prove it. Even the prices haven’t gone up as much as 20 years of economic turmoil might suggest.
“I’m hard pressed to think of any other local eatery that offers food of this high quality for a price this low,” I wrote at the end of that review. “Highly recommended.” From 2003 to 2022, I wouldn’t change a word of that.
Alley Cat Cafe is open daily except Sunday for breakfast and lunch, beginning the day with basic breakfast dishes and continuing through early afternoon with a selection of soups and sandwiches plus a few entrees, many showing a faint Italian accent. Everything on the breakfast menu is $9.99 or less, and the same is true for all the lunch items except three entrees that top out at $13.25 (for salmon sauteed in lemon caper sauce).
The Cafe is also famous for its homemade cakes, which are on display in a glass-front case to tempt you through your meal.
When we arrived, the polite server let us know that she was working alone in the crowded room, so service might be a little slow. That’s a smart move: It’s much easier for me to relax when I know there’s going to be a delay than to be irritated with an unexpected wait.
As it turned out, our meals didn’t take that long anyway, and the noonday crowd thinned out while we waited. We took advantage of the Cafe’s lunch special, which offers half of any panini or sandwich and a cup of soup or a salad for a thrifty $7.59. (The only asterisk to this deal adds 50 cents if your package includes a caesar salad, or a roast beef or sausage sub sandwich.
A hot roast beef sandwich ($9.49 on the regular menu, , $7.99 on the half-and-half special) piled several evenly sliced pieces of warm roast beef with crisply seared dark-brown edges and a single slice of melted provolone on a standard hoagie roll. A small tub of salty beef bouillon came alongside for optional dipping.
A portion of southwest caesar salad ($6.49 small, $7.99 large on the regular menu, 50 cents extra on the sandwich-and-salad combo) was a good one even though a couple of the cut squares of romaine looked a bit brown on the edges. All the romaine was crisp, not wilted, though, and a good, savory Caesar dressing was a definite plus. A few bits of artichoke heart, diced red and green bell pepper and shreds of Parmesan added color, and the crisp croutons were excellent.
A Milano panini ($8.49 on the regular menu, $7.49 with the half-and-half special) was excellent, and it boasted distinct Italian flavors. Roasted rounds of Italian eggplant, slices of portobello mushroom, a beautiful tender lettuce leaf and bits of Brie were pulled together with the distinct basil scent of pesto mayo on sliced toasted Asiago cheese bread. It was an excellent sandwich, and in retrospect I could have eaten a whole one.
The soup of the day – asparagus portobello – also showed off the chef’s creative skills. Cream-based and rich, it contained fine-chopped asparagus as well as bits of sliced mushroom and long-simmered asparagus spears. The flavors worked exceptionally well, with the mushroom imparting a subtle note almost like truffles.
A huge slice of Italian wedding cake made a delightful finish. It was wonderful cake, a highlight of an already good meal. Three layers high, with a mix of coconut and pecan bits to add texture to its yellow-cake base, it was finished with a thick, succulent cream-cheese icing studded with pecans. Please, sir, may I have some more?
With a tall glass of strong, fresh iced tea, unsweet with lemon, our exceptionally appealing lunch for two totaled $27.85. I added a $10 tip because the standard percentages don’t work for restaurants as affordable as this.
Alley Cat Cafe
11804 Shelbyville Road
Noise Level: This popular spot fills up at lunch time, with plenty of talking going on, but background music is so soft as to be almost inaudible. Decibel levels averaged 70dB (normal conversation) but with peaks to 78dB (the range of loud singing) and lulls as low as 60dB (the sound level of a quiet residential street).
Accessibility: There were no obvious barriers to wheelchair users in the small dining room.