December 20, 2012

Northern Lights Cafe (Review)

It was supposed to be the bookend to a perfect morning; we'd woken up late after staying up into the wee hours of the morning with our Dungeons and Dragons group, and then snuggled with the children until nearly lunch time.  We listened to Christmas music and talked about which presents we'd like to see under the tree. Then we piled in the car, Boy and Girl grinning from ear to ear about the first serious snowfall in the valley (which had occurred while they slept,) and ran a few light errands.  Nothing better to top it off than a trip to the Northern Lights Cafe (650 E. Boise Ave, Boise, ID 83706 (208) 424-9111,) a cozy little breakfast place that we used to visit every Sunday when the children were still toddlers.
Unfortunately, as you might be able to infer from the tone, this was one of those "you can never go home again" kind of experiences.  We couldn't tell that anything had changed when we walked in the door; the crowd seemed slight for a Sunday morning, especially as the church down the street was just getting out, but it wasn't empty, and the walls were still a friendly yellow and decked out with great photos of the Aurora Borealis.  We seated ourselves at the one empty booth and the hostess rushed over to clear away the mess of the last guests.  She handed out menus, took our drink orders, and let us know our waitress would be on her way shortly.

That the waitress was cloyingly annoying isn't the point of this review.  She did her job, mostly.  So I can't really ding her for being overly, synthetically pleasant.  Wife could, but I didn't really care.  What did stand out as the first negative of the trip was my Diet Pepsi.  In the couple of years since we'd last dined here, the size of cup soda comes in managed to shrink by half.  It was basically a juice glass, and I downed it before she'd even finished sorting out which kid got which hot chocolate.  (Pro Tip:  They are the same.)  Considering how cheap soda syrup actually is, my chintzy cup seemed like an unnecessary cutback.
My omelette--picked off the "build-it-yourself" portion of the menu so I could have bacon and jalapenos--was just your everyday diner omelette.  There were only three jalapeno slices, all cohabitating in the bottom right corner of the filling, but the cheese was melted and the bacon crisp, and I didn't expect much more.  The fried potatoes were just that.  The only real complaint I had with my food was the toast (not pictured,) a couple of pieces of rye that were coated so thinly they deserved a tag line, like "I can't believe it IS butter." 
Wife got the salmon scrambler.  Of course she did.  Every time we've ever gone to Northern Lights, she gets the salmon scrambler.  Even before we met, she would come here with her mother.  This time the beloved dish was off, however.  The smoked salmon was still cold, and the potatoes must have been remnants of a batch that was made before mine, because they were tepid too.  It was as if freshly cooked eggs had just been added to a pre-made plate and lightly tossed.  Her sourdough, too, got the vanishing butter treatment.  She ate the toast anyway--we were hungry--but the salmon went back.  It came back out piping hot and tasting just like she remembered, with the smoked salmon playing well with salty olives and melting cream cheese, but the genial waitress dropped her facade as soon as she went back into the kitchen and we could hear her griping to the other waitresses about us.  It was fine though.  We didn't appreciate her attitude certainly, but generally if we send something back and it's fixed right away, you will be forgiven.  The biggest problem came with the kid's meals which, like my soda, seemed to have shrunk in the wash.

At first glance, Boy's breakfast doesn't seem that problematic.  But those hash browns?  Those were a side-item add on.  Five dollars bought him a single slice of French toast (of the uninspired wonder bread variety, which tasted fine but contributes to my overall rant about value,) one sausage link, and one strip of bacon. Girl got a handful of potatoes and a cheese omelette that was smaller than said handful of potatoes.  They should have renamed it the toddler's menu.  That and lowered the price.

Here's the thing.  I would be completely willing to forgive the bipolar service--waitresses come and go, but I go out to eat for the food.  The kitchen staff fixed our complaint quite ably.  The salmon scrambler (at least the second one) was still delicious.  But while it's nice to know of a place that serves smoked salmon, and sausage made of caribou, most of the food is just average diner quality and that's not what you are paying for.  Portion sizes have gone down and prices have gone up, and while I understand the ups and downs of economics common sense says that if you have to sacrifice for the bottom line you need to at least limit yourself to just picking one of those things.  Instead our happy morning ran into a brick wall when we realized that we'd spent fifty dollars on breakfast, and several of us were still hungry.  You could certainly do worse than the Northern Lights Cafe', but in the years since we were regulars it has become apparent that you can now easily do better.

Northern Lights Cafe on Urbanspoon


  1. Perhaps it's under a new owner who came from New York where the soda has to be small portions by law.

  2. That pretty much sums it up. I was in that place unfortunately today, and while the place smelled like mold they charged like it was French cuisine. I did not know the owner was from New York, but it may explain why their first interaction with me was "whats your problem." Pretty nice way to greet customers that are politely and discreetly trying to point out an issue with the food. A friend of mine ordered just a hamburger patty and it and a tiny drink were $7. Too boot the hamburger was raw and when sent back arrived back at the table within 20 seconds microwaved and rubbery. I ordered the chicken strips and was served two small chicken strips and about 15 fries from the bottom of the package. I think they got the cod for my other friend's fish and chips from the Van DeCamps box on the grocer's freezer aisle. Would recommend skipping this place and hitting the Dairy Queen across the lot, the food will be better, cheaper, and you will not have to deal with restaurant that smells like wet socks.