The server—there’s just one—is also the runner and busser. He’s the general manager, too. And—surely you saw this coming—the chef.
Cole Whaley, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, does it all at his 26-seat Beltsville restaurant, Café Rue. If that sometimes means handing over your plates to make room on the table or waiting awhile to have simple needs like refills taken care of—well, so be it. The man’s busy.
Part of the charm in coming here is to get away from the slickness of too many area restaurants. Flip through one of the books on cooking and travel scattered about the coffee table. Study Whaley’s collection of art and photographs. You’re not in a restaurant—you’re in someone’s home. Someone who really knows how to cook.
The mini-crabcakes ($8) aren’t all mayo and filler, as these snacks often are; they taste of crab. The Brussels sprouts ($7) are fried to such a crisp that the leaves separate slightly, like baked-potato skins; a seasoning shot of coconut oil and a drizzle of clover honey and you have one of the best renditions of this oddly trendy dish I’ve seen all year.
You won’t find cocktails, beer, or wine, but Whaley has stocked a supply of terrific, low-sugar sodas from a Seattle company called Dry; the juniper berry tastes like a gin-and-tonic, minus the kick.
The heart of the menu is the five varieties of chicken and waffles. The Classic ($11) is excellent, but so is a preparation ($14) that bathes the well-fried white-meat chicken in a sweet Sriracha glaze: Voilà—upscaled General Tso’s. Turn either into a complete meal with an order of sautéed kale ($6), a tangle of perfectly cooked greens that doesn’t stint on the bacon but also doesn’t forget the vinegar.
When it comes to sweets, Whaley indulges his inner Francophile. There are five kinds of macarons ($7)—not Ladurée but not bad—and a Nutella-slathered “Cronut” ($7 for two), that ingenious cross between a croissant and a doughnut that turned jaded New Yorkers into wide-eyed innocents.
The restaurant doesn’t stay open past 3 on the weekend. (Whaley is a family man, and he also operates a very good food truck, Cole’s Palette.) That just means you’ll have to seek it out at odd hours. How fitting.
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.