Lori Lucas

St. Johns has always struck me as a wellspring of untapped "cool neighborhood" potential. As the migration of young homeowners moves northward, it seems inevitable that the abundance of storefronts lining N Lombard will soon house shops, nice restaurants, and boutiques selling duct tape wallets.

The cool factor of downtown St. Johns got a major kick in the pants last month when Proper Eats Café—a late-night, beer-serving, tempeh- and granola-loving, restaurant/organic market—opened its doors in the old Café Nola space. The front of Proper Eats looks like a small, traditional health-food store committed to organic farming and sustainable agriculture. There's spinach from St. Johns neighborhoods, fruit from Sauvie Island, plus all the normal bulk food items: granola, quinoa, and expeller-pressed canola oil.

Far more than a small stop-and-shop, though, Proper Eats is a vegetarian and vegan café with microbrews on tap and live music on the weekends. The ambiance is a little lacking; the open kitchen and mostly blank walls make it look a little threadbare, but that'll certainly improve over time. Local residents don't seem to mind—on the Friday night that I ate there, every table was occupied.

My wife and I started with the spreads and dips platter—a smattering of locally made crackers and our choice of three house-made spreads. We picked the miso tahini, the olive, and the avocado. The caraway seed crackers broke off crisply in my mouth, and their subtle, savory flavors complemented the spreads perfectly. We washed the starter down with home-brewed sodas bottled two weeks earlier in Hood River.

Despite having café-style counter service, our courses came out at a nice pace, and employees dropped by regularly to bus plates and check on us.

Our arugula and pear salad came out next, dressed with pecans and a raspberry vinaigrette. It was pretty by the book, except that the handsome presentation was a nice signal that Proper Eats strives to be more than a slapdash café with hastily thrown-together dishes.

I chose the nachos as my entrée—despite the fact that they were cheese-free(!). The heaping mound of tortilla chips, black beans, rice, guacamole, and salsa was almost enough to make me forget about dairy products altogether. Once I tasted the final garnish, a corn and pumpkin-seed relish, I was ready to swear off cheesy nachos for the rest of my life. My wife was less impressed with her veggie wrap, so we swapped halfway through, and I found it to be perfectly tasty. Essentially a big burrito of steamed veggies and your choice of tempeh or tofu, the wrap is brought to life by a delicious miso tahini spread.

There aren't a ton of dessert choices, but the brownie we shared on the ride home was perfectly chewy and moist. (Hey Proper Eats—how about an espresso machine?)

In the car, my wife wondered aloud, "Was that an entirely vegan meal?" I added it all up, and to my surprise, it was. More surprisingly, though, was how flavorful it was. (Cheap, too. The entire meal rang up for less than $35.) The shocking part of the whole deal, though, was not that we had a delicious, affordable vegan meal, but that such a great dining experience happened in the shadow of the St. Johns Bridge.