It’s fair enough to say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but there are a lot of sound reasons people judge restaurants by the look of their exterior. These reasons tend to apply more to contemporary restaurants opened in the last ten years or so. For establishments residing in the same place for decade after decade, worn exteriors often mislead as shabby, rundown, or divey. Even if one of these traits does apply, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a poor dining experience. You just have to have the right expectations.
The Moonlite Cafe in Brookline is a good example of having an expectation based on an exterior appearance completely surpassed by the performance of the restaurant within. Assuming you didn’t carefully read the green awning over the main entrance, it’s more than likely you’d assume this was just your standard old dive bar in a neighborhood full of them. And you wouldn’t be totally wrong – the lounge leading into the back dining room is fairly divey. But the dining room is something else altogether.
First, and foremost, it’s well-lit. It resembles a redone rec hall: lots of lighting, wood trim, fairly standard carpet. Upon sitting down, I remarked to my dining companion that I felt like I had eaten in a dozen places like this. Given my penchant for neighborhood bar/restaurants, I’m not surprised to have felt this way. This could have been the dining room of any number of little places that line the roads between the town I grew up and the city I live in. And I don’t think that’s a negative aspect whatsoever, more of an observational standard. There is a look that these places have. Worn in but tidy, fairly well maintained.
We took a look at our menus, but passed on drinks. Moonlite Cafe serves Italian cuisine, so you can expect a fair amount of standard dishes to appear. The meat-focused dishes offer two side dishes, while the pastas come with a side salad or cup of soup. Having both ordered pasta dishes, we both went with the salad as our starter.
Thus, another trait of the bar and restaurant was proven: the house salad. Always made with iceberg. Dressing on the side. Ingredients thrown about without much thought given to how they would work together. And croutons, of course. But this is where the Moonlite did the usual one better: the croutons were homemade, and even more importantly, seasoned and sized to delicious perfection. Also, the ingredients thrown together were clearly fresher than many places offer, and the balsamic vinaigrette that accompanied my salad was by turns a little sour, a little sweet, and very decent.
Before ordering, we had debated ordering ravioli in an Italian restaurant. Look, sad to say that ordering ravioli at most Italian places is a rip off. It’s true. Either you get very few for a large amount of money, or for a reasonable amount of money you get a fair quantity, but they’re the same kind you can pick up in the store for half as much. The idea behind them is usually better than the execution, especially the fancier you get with the filling, and the best you can hope for in most places is mediocre. Maybe it’s my Polish blood acting out against a poor imitator for pierogi, or maybe I’ve just had one too many disappointing plates of ravioli, but I tend to avoid ordering it.
Wes, however, was intrigued when our waitress told us they were homemade, so he went ahead and ordered the meat ravioli. They came swimming in a deep crimson sauce speckled with oregano, pepper, and a little Parmesan. You could tell immediately they were homemade because of the bubbles in the dough and the slightly different sizes of the ravioli. The filling, designed to be paired with a vibrant sauce, was fittingly mild in taste, but not bland, and the texture was pleasing. Best of all, the portion was just about right for the price and perfect for a dinner-level appetite. There might not have been enough to have lunch for the next day, but there was no way Wes was leaving the table hungry.
I wasn’t in the mood for a whole lot of meat or dairy (after my pasta at the Getaway Cafe, I was still a little wary of so much cheese), so I went for a fettucini with shrimp, zucchini, and mushrooms in a butter garlic sauce. These kind of sauces can be really tricky. Too much and you leave feeling greasy and slightly queasy. Too little and the pasta has not enough flavor. With the shrimp there, it would be tempting to lay on the butter like a scampi, but the plate was a study in portioned complements. The shrimp was firm and served the softer zucchini and mushrooms well. I chose the fettucine, and while I was glad to have a hearty noodle, a slightly thinner pasta might have better worked with the mild flavors. As it was, I felt like my choice in grain soaked up too much of the flavor, rendering the other ingredients bland by comparison. The pool of sauce at the bottom of the plate might have remained better mixed in the dish if I had gone with linguine or angel hair.
The service was fast and efficient, if a little clipped. It may have just been the juxtaposition. Nothing felt particularly rushed or fast-moving about the dining experience, but our waitress seemed to be working at a completely different pace than what was set by the surroundings. Maybe she’d had a lot of coffee.
The experience was nothing earth shattering, but for a bar-restaurant specializing in Italian cuisine, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the dishes we ordered. It’s not the romantic Italian restaurant you’d take a romantic partner to, but it’s a decent place to stop in, grab a bite, and enjoy the comforts of a place that is familiar in the best possible way.