The bar at the heart of Bar Carlo is, in fact, an espresso bar. Quaint, right? It's a big, beautiful bar that dominates the otherwise under-furnished restaurant, providing both a focal point and a suggestion that Bar Carlo might have more to offer than its mismatched chairs, linoleum floors, and unfinished interior would initially suggest.
The airy little space is located on SE Foster, in an old Russian restaurant with a red and green exterior and big windows overlooking the busy road. Serving breakfast and lunch, it's a welcome, easy-to-overlook little refuge from the traffic and noise of Foster.
Presumably rent is low out here, because Bar Carlo's prices are great. The lunch menu consists of pizza, paninis, heroes, and a couple of salads, all for under $10. There are a number of good-looking sandwiches on the menu, and on my first visit I dove right in and ordered the tuna melt. A bad tuna melt is a terrible thing, a layer of soggy tuna smothered in rubbery cheese that always makes me think of a particularly offensive blonde joke my cousin told me once. Bar Carlo's rendition, however, was really excellent, grilled with Gruyere instead of cheddar for a lighter, more nuanced sandwich.
The pizza presents a bit of a problem: It is not, strictly speaking, the best pizza I've ever had. Toppings were fine, but the crust was doughy and a bit on the flaccid side. But what looked to be a 12-inch pie costs $8.50, and... I just can't complain about that. A meatball pizza will set you back $9, and the pizza menu tops out at anchovy or sopressata and olives, for $9.50. I am a person who likes good food, but I am also frequently a person who has very little money, and if I can spend nine bucks on two days' worth of non-sucky pizza that's made with quality ingredients, there are certain points in my financial life cycle where Bar Carlo's pizza is gonna look pretty good to me.
Breakfast, though, is where Bar Carlo really won me over; it's the meal that elevates this little space, transforming a restaurant that might initially seem grubby and unpolished into a funky, charming find. The breakfast menu consists of omelets, scrambles, and a handful of "house specials" (sweet and savory crêpes, breakfast sandwiches), plus a rotating specials board where you might find a vegan scramble or French toast with seasonal fruit. Four dollars gets you an open-faced sandwich slathered with mascarpone (a rich, creamy cheese, similar to crème fraîche) and topped with slices of cooked pear. That and a cup of coffee will get you half way through the Saturday crossword puzzle. Oh, and speaking of the coffee, it's Stumptown, self-serve at the bar, just in case the server forgets to mention it.
Last Saturday, at about 11 am, I started my Labor Day weekend off with Lisa's Favorite Scramble. Eight bucks got me fruit, thick-sliced, lightly seasoned fried potatoes, toast, and an excellent scramble of goat cheese, fresh dill, and smoked salmon—and the place was half-empty, so there was no wait and service was prompt.
As one of my lunch companions put it, if Bar Carlo was in my neighborhood, I'd go there all the time. I probably wouldn't make the trip out to SE 64th and Foster for lunch alone—though on a weekend, faced with the brunching hordes at Zell's or the Tin Shed, I just might be persuaded to make the trip.