Abbey Café, St. John’s

Fruit and yogurt

Abbey Café
Monastery Spa and Suites
63 Patrick St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 757-3318 or 754-5800

Abbey Cafe is housed in Spa at the Monastery

There may have been more but, by my count, there are currently three buildings on Patrick Street which were consecrated or formally dedicated when constructed. One of them was a monastery. Now it’s a spa – actually, Monastery Spa and Suites – where people still pad about in robes. These days the robes are white and made of terrycloth. No longer a place of prayer, this monastery’s robed men can have back, neck, shoulder, chest and stomach hair removed for $150; and robed women can receive semi-permanent lash extensions for $225. (Semi-permanent. Who knew?)

Two years ago, after a period of inactivity, the Abbey Restaurant at the spa was resurrected by current Monastery Spa and Suites owners, Leaside Group. (The group, according to its website, also owns Leaside Manor, Midstream Manor, Compton House, a building on Firdale Drive identified as Airport Manor, and a facility in Arnold’s Cove called, the Arnold’s Cove Inn.)

Obviously, the restaurant welcomes spa clients – robed or in civvies – but it’s also open to the public. According to Nicole Bailote, General Manager of Abbey Café and Accommodations for Leaside Group, the restaurant’s services are evolving.

Open for all
“We’re open for breakfast for our hotel guests and light lunches for our spa guests as well. As of the past year we’ve extended our hours into a light lunch, and supper evening sitting. We’re also endeavouring to do corporate functions and fundraisers, family reunions, small weddings, cultural events, as well as food and beverage, here at the Abbey Café and at some of our other historic properties as well.”

Abbey Cafe outside entrance

Robert Lowe was hired a few months ago to handle the cooking at Abbey Café, or as he told me, “to bring this place back to life.” He used to cook at Rumpelstiltskin’s back in the days when Michel Autexier was the maître d’hôtel. Lowe has his work cut out for him trying to negotiate what is essentially a home kitchen. It’s not that difficult when preparing the current breakfast and light lunch items, but, according to Lowe, change is coming.

“These are new hours. We used to be open till three. We’re gonna keep it open till seven or seven-thirty. We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in the works: a complete menu change, we’re coming in on Fridays with a happy hour and acoustic live music. We’ve got a function coming up on Valentine’s Day – intimate tables for two. There’s so much going on. As for the evening, I usually put on a pasta or stir-fry. I’ve got a grill outside. On nice evenings if someone orders something I can grill it off.”

View of Abbey Cafe deck

Patio entrance
If you’re just interested in dining, and giving the Himalayan Rejuvenation Treatment a miss, then you’ll want to enter Abbey Café directly through its own outside entrance. It’s at the back of the spa building, off an expansive wraparound deck or “patio,” as Nicole Bailote calls it. (A patio that in summer can easily triple the capacity of the café.) Robert Lowe’s Grill Chef BBQ, with all six control knobs, is near the entrance. French double doors and a French hood awning suggest you’re about to enter a French bistro.

Abbey Cafe fireplace area

Once inside, the scene is less French bistro and more inexpensive, converted Mediterranean hotel breakfast room. A large support post and service counter base are coated in beach pebbles. White, retro modern tables and white, retro, molded chairs with wire base fill the room – with one exception. A high, round, hardwood folding table with curved legs snuggles against a wall, bookended by two high versions of the same molded white chairs. It reminded me of that “one of these things doesn’t belong” visual quiz.

A corner electric fireplace’s mantelpiece appears cluttered with candles, vases and framed mirrors. “A perfect spot for a table-for-two wasted,” thought I. Windowsills are decorated largely with low maintenance, artificial plants. One window housed a striking, black, horse’s head bust. I love horses. We sat close to it.

Abbey Café’s current menu is far from ambitious. There’s nothing on it that you couldn’t knock off in your own kitchen, and, in some cases, quite quickly. I’m sure spa guests are happy with the menu. After all, doesn’t a massage and long, hot soak only make one crave light, tame sustenance? Just as long as it comes with a chilled glass of Chardonnay of course. Abbey Café has no difficulty meeting the needs of spa guests. The hoi polloi? Well, that remains to be seen.

Red pepper soup and sandwich

I didn’t finish my red pepper soup. The portion was large, and the soup wasn’t moreish. It was starchy. Chef says it contained tomatoes, roasted red peppers, onions, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and a tiny bit of cream. It was reddish and certainly contained red peppers but, given the billing – Red Pepper Soup – it should have been singing of red peppers. It could have benefited from umami and sour, i.e. chicken or veggie stock and lemon.

Omelette sandwich with bacon

The omelette sandwich is popular street food in India, where it tastes eggy, naturally, but also has other flavours. Indians like to add spices, green onion and sometimes chutney. Abbey Café’s croissant omelette sandwich was very eggy. It also comes with bacon – extra for $2 – Swiss cheese and tomato. It was good, but I missed the added zip that spice and a dash of mayo, ketchup or chutney can provide.

Garden salad with turkey sandwich

Ubiquitous gobbler
My soup and sandwich were the quintessential North American cafeteria lunch. Spouse’s lunch may have been more so because it involved turkey, that ubiquitous North American sandwich filling. Fresh, sliced turkey, lettuce, and tomato between two slices of lightly toasted whole wheat bread, lightly shmeared with mayo, is the definition of familiar. If everything is fresh, it’s guaranteed to taste good, and it did.

Freshness is even more important when it comes to a garden salad. The Abbey’s was made with lettuce, tomato, English cucumber – best because it’s without those annoying, big seeds – red onion and mushrooms. A modest pour of balsamic vinaigrette made the very fresh salad livelier and better tasting.

Fruit and yogurt

Spa people tend to be weight conscious. So, I was only mildly surprised that Abbey Café doesn’t have desserts. Robert Lowe told me he worked in a job involving scratch baking for more than a year. He’s planning to use those skills to make desserts for the restaurant.

In lieu of pie or cake or chocolate mousse, I made my dessert fresh fruit: Abbey Café’s fruit and yogurt parfait. It came with granola sprinkled on top and was more than satisfying. If what I was told bears fruit – pardon the pun – there’ll be plenty of dessert options at Abbey Café in the months ahead. In fact, options to rival the spa’s menu of body wraps, cures and facials.

* Good  * * Very good  * * * Excellent  * * * * Exceptional

Price Lunch for two with tea, tax and tip costs approximately $35.

Service Excellent.

Atmosphere Like a small, inexpensive inn’s dining room.

Sound level Low.

Open Daily: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Reservations Walk-ins are welcome.

Credit cards All major.

Parking Spa parking lot.

Beverages Mimosas, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot and Shiraz. Abbey Café also offers six smoothies with rum: Pina Colada, Caribbean Daze, Coconut Bay, Playground Punch, Wild Sunset and Berry Delight. Teas, coffee and water are also available.

Best bets Salads, sandwiches and yogurt with fruit.

Gluten free options Yes. Abbey Café’s menu recommends asking server for details.

Vegan options Currently no, only vegetarian, but, chef Lowe says he’s working on developing vegan options.

Wheelchair access No, but, General Manager, Nicole Bailote, hopes to have wheelchair access in place after this spring.