(From left) Shrimp on Old Bay toasts; garlic waffle fires; carrot cake. Credit: Photo credit: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

I don’t know Café 1894 owner Duane Rollins, but every time I’ve eaten at his restaurant in Kensington, I’ve felt like a guest in his home, not a customer. It seems fitting to write him a note.

Dear Duane,

Congratulations on your one-year anniversary! It was last January when you first started serving dinners in the old Café Monet locale, and I understand things are going well. In the past year, you’ve handed over the pots and pans to two chefs so you can host the front of the house, and you recently added live music and an expanded seating area. Exciting progress! I must admit though, I was a bit dubious when I first dropped by. The location- behind the new Safeway parking garage-is not exactly picturesque, and the exterior of the building looks far less cheerful than when Café Monet had the spot. But then I walked inside.

Like the proverbial pair of old jeans, there’s something so comfortable and comforting about the space. Love the sage walls, the wainscoting, the high-backed black chairs and the knickknacks. It’s warm and relaxing. And quiet. I’m tired of restaurants with million-dollar décors and high-decibel dins. If I want noise, I’ll go to a hockey game.

But when I want a personable spot with a lot of quirky charm, I’ll head your way. The wait staff isn’t polished or professional; after all, that’s not what you’d expect at a family dinner. Our servers have forgotten to tell us about your signature chicken special, left plates on the table between courses and taken a while to bring the check-but it was like, oh well, there goes absent-minded Aunt Shirley again, getting waylaid in the kitchen.

So what did I think of the food? For The most part, I liked it. My basis for comparison wasn’t a downtown fine dining establishment or a chic hot spot. Obviously, that’s not what you’re trying to be. You’re a neighborhood restaurant serving fresh, homey classics with some creative touches. I understand some recipes were passed down from your mom-a waitress at a diner in upstate New York when you were growing up-and others you collected over the years and served at your own parties.

Those garlic waffle fries-crispy and garlicky-they’re a terrific match for the horseradish sour cream dipping sauce. And the shrimp toasts-my husband liked them so much he ordered them twice. The baguette slices topped with cream cheese, shrimp, a dollop of cocktail sauce, a sprig of cilantro and a sprinkling of Old Bay reminded me of something my parents might have served at their 1960s cocktail parties (save for the cilantro; nobody knew what it was back then). The soup special, salmon chowder, was rich and chock-full of salmon and potatoes-but I’m a stickler that hot soups be hot, and this one was only warm.

Your beginnings-and endings-are high points. Hold on tight to your bakers! The moist carrot cake, with its flecks of grated orange peel and not-too-sweet icing studded with big walnut chunks, reminded me of why this once-everywhere dessert should never go out of style. That chocolate chip barwith shredded coconut, served warm, would put any bake sale item to shame. And the cheese cake with blueberries was lemony, fluffy and not too heavy.

So what about the entrees? Like easy listening music, most were pleasant but not too lively. I tried the popular turkey meat loaf on two occasions and kept waiting for some zing from its spinach, Cheddar and Parmesan cheese filling.

The salmon was a properly cooked chunk of fish, but the accompanying mango salsa was surprisingly dull. The pork loin, tricky to get right, was juicy and flavorful when it first arrived at the table but dried out as it rested. Take it off the heat a bit sooner. The beef burgundy and the pasta with vodka sauce and turkey sausage are hearty fare, great for cold nights, but drop the over-sauced veggie wrap. It seems odd on a dinner menu anyway.

I’m tired of restaurants that promise more than they deliver. Café 1894 doesn’t try to be something it’s not.As you write on your Web site, “I want people to gather here, take in the peaceful setting, catch their breath, meet with friends, share a laugh, enjoy an icy cold drink and feast upon a handcrafted meal they find simply memorable.” You come pretty close.

Hope to see you soon,
Carole

Highlights of Café 1894

(named after the date of Kensington’s incorporation)
10417 Knowles Ave., Kensington
301-962-1894
www.cafe1894.com

Open

Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; breakfast and lunch Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., with drinks until 11 p.m.

Prices

Breakfast and lunch: $4.95 to $12
Dinner entrees: $13.95 to $20.95
Menu is short and changes seasonally.
Owner Duane Rollins says he “goes into a panic” when faced with too many choices at a restaurant.

Reservations

Not accepted.

Wine List

Rollins was involved in the successful effort to get Kensington’s restrictive liquor law changed in 2007, which finally opened the door for more restaurants in the town. Previously, an establishment had to have a food-to-alcohol-sales ratio of 70 to 30, a “nearly impossible” combination for a restaurant, according to Rollins. The new law lowered the ratio to 50/50, consistent with the rest of Montgomery County. So far, Café 1894 has a limited beer and wine list, but a full bar serving cocktails and mixed drinks.

Favorite Dishes

Garlic waffle fries, shrimp on Old Bay toasts.

Favorite Desserts

Carrot cake, chocolate chip bar.

Good Place to Go For

Lunch with the ladies; an easy, relaxing dinner where you don’t have to wear earplugs or Ferragamos.

Parking/Getting There

Street parking.

Carole Sugarman is a former food writer for The Washington Post.