Eat Here Now: EAT Café in University City

The Drexel-backed, mission-driven restaurant has rolled out a Southern-inflected lunch menu to support its pay-what-you-can dinner service.

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Fried chicken and biscuits for lunch at the EAT Café | Photo by Alexandra Jones

Running a restaurant isn’t easy even in the best of circumstances. Running a restaurant where guests have the option to eat for free? That’s even harder.

But it’s what the EAT Café, the Drexel-backed nonprofit restaurant, has been doing for more than two years at their cozy, cheery space on Lancaster Avenue.

Initially, said longtime Philly chef Valerie Erwin, who came on as EAT Café’s general manager last year, about a third of customers were paying less than the suggested price for their meals, one third were paying menu price, and one third were tacking on a donation on top of that. These days, the breakdown is closer to 75 percent of customers paying less than the suggested price, she said, with the remaining 25 percent of customers paying full price or more.

To support the pay-what-you-can dinner service the cafe runs four nights a week, Erwin and her colleagues at Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities recently began casual, set-price lunch service.

Lunch at the EAT Café is fresh and comforting, with a soul food slant thanks to Erwin, who owned Geechee Girl Rice Cafe in Mt. Airy until 2015.

Her menus focus on fresh, familiar dishes presented in a new way — delicious, approachable, and executed finely enough to be competitive with other options in University City. She’s even gotten South Carolina-based Anson Mills to provide regular donations of heirloom grits and other grains (Metropolitan Bakery here in Philly donates artisan breads).

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Fried eggplant Caesar at the Eat Café | Photo by Alexandra Jones

Of course, Erwin’s famous fried chicken recipe is on the menu in the form of boneless thighs in a crisp, light coating, set on tender biscuits with an indulgent side of steak fries, pickles, and dipping sauce like pepper jelly or buttermilk ranch. Slices of fried eggplant, crunchy outside and creamy inside, top a Caesar made with lacinato kale and romaine — or get them sandwiched between slices of focaccia along with roasted tomato.

Hit up EAT Café for lunch — eat-in or takeout — Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and pay what you can (or more, if you’re able) at dinner Wednesday through Friday nights from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. Check out both menus below (click to embiggen).