By Robin Garr
Not that I’m worried about the Delta variant or anything – well, not too much. But it may have been a factor the other day in my decision to try takeout for the first time in a while. This is how I ended up at Starving Artist Café & Deli in Lyndon, which may be the best restaurant in town that I’ve hardly ever heard of.
Starving Artist is a tiny storefront packed with a half-dozen tables, a service window, and colorful decor – a psychedelic VW bus, peace symbols, flowers and exhortations to love – on its bright purple and green walls. It accepts only cash or checks, no credit cards; and it’s open only from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays: never on weekends.
Starving Artist never advertises. Its only online presence appears to be a Facebook page. And as far as I can tell after extensive searching, no local food critic (not even me) has ever reviewed it in its 20 years of operation.
Walk in to Starving Artist’s tiny space and you might think you’ve been wafted back to the ‘60s. You don’t have to be a hippie to love the food, though. Everything is made fresh from local produce, it’s made consistently well, and the menu pricing will take you back, if not to the ‘60s, at least to a simpler pre-inflationary time.
Speaking of the menu, that’s a little idiosyncratic, too. It’s hard to find, and the woman who took my phone order warned me not to trust the menus I find online, “because there are a lot of them, and they change.” A larger menu on the restaurant wall appears to be current, but quite a few of its prices are blacked out. So take all this with a grain of artisanal sea salt, but the good news is that nothing here is going to whack your wallet painfully.
Sandwiches, most of them oven-baked, make up the bulk of the menu, and they’re all priced at $8. Almost 20 are billed as oven-baked great masters, each named after a great artist of painting, classical music, jazz and pop. The Van Gogh, for instance, places turkey and muenster cheese on wheatberry bread; the Beethoven assembles three cheeses and bacon. A grilled chicken breast and bacon make up the Michael Jackson, and hickory-smoked chicken salad and melted mozzarella on a bun honor the memory of Bob Marley.
All of those plus a half-dozen cold sandwiches are loaded with meat, but vegetarians will find tasty options among the seven Healthy Options, like the Bob Ross (which appears to be vegan with lettuce, tomato, banana peppers, black olives, and cucumbers); and the two-cheese and avocado Michelangelo sandwich.
BLTs and grilled cheese are always available, and an there’s a selection of four soups, a daily special sandwich ($7) and four desserts ($2-$4) that all change daily.
We called in our lunch order (no, there’s no online ordering) and everything was hot and fresh when we picked it up right on time.
A Ruben sandwich ($8) – not a mispelling but a play on the name of the 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens – was excellent. In fact, it was so voluptuous that you could call it Rubensesque. It was hefty with sauerkraut and a plump pile of fresh corned beef, with just the right amount of thousand island dressing, the traditional reuben sauce. I’m not sure how the oven-baked process works, but the bread (whole wheat rather than the traditional rye) was deliciously buttered and crisp, much like a classic grilled cheese. It came with a large dill pickle spear and an individual-sized bag of Lay’s potato chips.
A tossed salad side ($3.50) was well-made, too. A base of very fresh mixed salad greens fresh was topped with halved grape tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and a generous ration of of yellow cheese shreds. In an appealing touch, the salad was topped with three different types of crouton, some dark, some light, and some in-between, all crunchy and fresh.
From the Healthy Options menu, a Janis Joplin sandwich ($8) demonstrated that healthy (and meatless) doesn’t have to be boring. Delicious wheatberry bread was stacked high with lettuce, tomato, pepperjack cheese, and banana peppers with a dollop of Dijon mustard, and given the crispy, buttery oven-baked treatment. That and the contrasting mix of textures and pops of spicy flavor made it a memorable treat.
Tomato Florentine soup, pictured above ($4, offered free as a lunch side) was clearly homemade, simple and nourishing. A thick tomato puree was filled with wilted baby spinach leaves that added dimension to the flavor.
A big wedge of coconut cream pie ($4) was filled with strands of coconut, both embedded in the thick, buttery crumb-crust edge and in the cream pie filling as well. It was topped with whipped cream to make an indulgent treat.
Remember, Starving Artist accepts cash only, no credit cards. Our bulging lunch bag came to just $24.11, plus an $8 tip.
Starving Artist Café & Deli
8034 New La Grange Road
Noise Level: Not really an issue with a few people hanging around waiting for their pickup orders at the service window.
Accessibility: The tiny storefront appears accessible to wheelchair users.