Downtown luncheonette decor tends to be chipper, with lots of local art featuring fish and mountains on the walls. By comparison, the Plymouth Cafe is almost monastic: narrow tables, high ceilings with exposed pipes, refrigerators and counters lining the perimeter. The wall farthest from the entrance is covered with large pictures of historic Seattle buildings and an oversized map darted with variously colored pegs. Only the funky light fixture hanging down the middle of the room—white Ping-Pong balls stuck into a metal cage-ish thing—strikes a bizarrely personal note.
But when you learn how the cafe came to be, the oddities begin to make sense: It is a fund-raising project for the 24-year-old Plymouth Housing Group (PHG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to supplying homeless Seattleites with affordable housing through the renovation of old Seattle buildings. All profits from the cafe go directly to supporting the social services provided by PHG (medical care, assistance for those who are chemically dependent, life-skills coaching, counseling, and more). Paul Lambros, the program's executive director, hopes the cafe will also raise awareness of the group and its mission.
PHG mostly targets single homeless adults who are unable to pay a normal amount of rent, offering apartments in any of its 12 buildings (soon to be more) for around $110 a month.
Which brings us back to the cafe and its goal to aid these services through the power of hunger. Especially hungry businesspeople. Every time I've visited Plymouth Cafe, it's been full of professional types: black jackets, plastic name tags, even a bow tie or two. I now realize that the Ping-Pong light fixture is a means of displaying the names (written on the balls) of contributors to the cafe, and that the oversized map with the scattered colorful pegs marks the locations of the many buildings owned, renovated, and used by PHG. Overall, it's a comfortable place: a simple, cool color scheme; the continuous sound of conversation that manages to stay at a murmur despite the number of people; and a large selection of sandwiches, soups, salads, and side dishes.
Being one who presumes that anything described as "signature" is essential to order on a menu, on my first visit I tried the Plymouth signature Caesar salad with smoked salmon ($4 small/$6.75 large). It's hard to screw up salad with salmon, and happily the cafe doesn't, offering lots of flavorful Caesar dressing, big crunchy croutons, and most importantly, a good amount of salmon mixed into the salad so there are no worries about slopping stuff around. Thinking that soup is always good company for salad, I tried the homemade vegetarian chili ($2.75 cup/$3.75 bowl) at the cashier's suggestion, but found it too thin and runny for my taste. My mistake ordering a chili soup, when I think of chili as thick and filling. No complaints about the seasoning, though; it was tangy enough to freak me out. I tamed it a bit with the fresh focaccia bread. I should have tried the homemade salmon bisque or porto-bello mushroom soup that others were raving about.
On my next visit, I decided to approach the Plymouth as a "sandwich place" and ordered the St. Charles ($3.75 half/$5.75 whole). This—which, like the restaurant's other sandwiches, is named after one of PHG's buildings—consisted of juicy roast turkey breast, applewood-smoked cheddar, and stone-ground mustard on thick whole-grain bread: delicious. The other sandwiches around me, particularly the egg salad ($5.25) on focaccia being wolfed down by a woman in a pantsuit, looked equally appetizing.
Plymouth Cafe offers more than an excellent sandwich; various socially conscious Northwest food suppliers are featured on the bill of fare, including Top Pot (doughnuts and coffee), Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, Tim's Cascade Potato Chips, and Athena bottled water. The service from the energetic staff is genuinely friendly and quick, the location is convenient, the prices are reasonable, and . . . , not to get too preachy on you, but wouldn't you rather be stuffing your face for a cause?
Plymouth Cafe, Third Avenue and Cherry Street, 206-622-0477, DOWNTOWN. Mon.–Fri. 6 a.m.–5:30 p.m.