The arrival of late summer finds me biking to Café Selmarie for plum kuchen. One bite reminds me of why it’s worth making the seasonal trek: the simple sweet dense cake cradles sliced, juicy Italian plums curled and tinged from just the right amount of time in the oven. It’s the perfect way to bring out the best in a fruit dessert.
For more than 27 years, this charming bakery plus restaurant has been serving up high-quality European-style pastries, cakes, and breads. The café sits in the heart of the Lincoln Square shopping area overlooking Giddings Plaza, a small, brick-paved square with a fountain. In warmer weather people line up to sit at table seating outside and in colder weather they can gaze outward from the inside counter along the large windows.
What is most likely to first catch your attention when you walk in, however, is the alluring array of tarts, pastries, cookies, cakes, and tortes. These latter two dominate the scene, with such selections as Sacher Torte, Mocha Buttercream torte, Raspberry Marzipan torte, German chocolate cake, Orange Decadence cake, and carrot cake. Customer favorites include the Black Forest torte and the Banana Truffle torte, made with layers of dense banana sponge cake filled with a chocolate truffle buttercream, covered in bittersweet chocolate with a hint of rum.
Some unusual finds that are regular staples are the tennis ball-sized rum balls, in rum-soaked chocolate sponge cake layered with bittersweet chocolate rolled in chocolate sprinkles. These have been on the menu since Café Selmarie opened in 1983. There is also the Bienenstich (“Bee Hive,” aka “Bee Sting”) cake, a German cake with a creamy filling that is finished with a golden-baked sliced almond-honey topping. Legend has it that the baker who invented it made the topping with honey that attracted a bee that stung the baker.
Cookies, bright fruit tarts, breakfast rolls, and simple cakes fit the bill when you want something less lavish. I usually take home a piece of one of the simple cakes—the cinnamon streusel-topped blueberry sour cream coffee cake, the pecan butter rum, or the lemon poppyseed—to go with my morning coffee. And a slice of Gateau Grandmère almost always finds a way into my shopping bag. This is another simple, yet delicious cake of pound cake-like sweet dough with sliced apples mixed in.
Beyond the front bakery is the indoor/outdoor restaurant area, simple in style with primary blue and pale yellow walls and big windows. The fare is comfort-style American with a contemporary twist. For breakfast, the corned beef hash with two poached eggs is excellent. Or try the brioche French toast topped with mixed berry compote or Selmarie granola with fresh fruit. Lunch items include soups, salads, quiche, wraps, and sandwiches, such as the Roasted Vegetable, piled with roasted Portobello mushrooms, eggplants, charred red onions, caramelized fennel, piquillo peppers, and herbed goat cheese on a fresh-baked bun. Dinner runs the gamut from Wild Mushroom Ravioli, Jerk-Spiced Chicken with mango-papaya relish, Steak au Poivre, and Panko-Crusted Tilapia.
Regulars come for their weekly fixes of the signature pouffy and creamy chicken pot pie and vegetarian chili of pinto beans and white cheddar cheese with hearty cornbread. Be sure to try the sweet potato fries, served with a chipotle mayonnaise dipping sauce. In all that Café Selmarie prepares, the focus is on fresh, seasonal, and high-quality ingredients.
Not only has Café Selmarie has stood the test of time, but also of friendship. The paths of the owners to-be Jeanne Uzdawinis and Birgit Kobayaski crossed by chance back in the early ’80s. The two lived only a block apart from each other, and mutual neighbors who knew of their exceptional baking skills encouraged the two to meet. Finally, while shopping at a local grocery store they did, and later met for coffee. Their connection was instant: both grew up in households with mothers who baked and cooked and so did they.
Birgit grew up in Freiburg, Germany, near the Swiss border, and picked up her mother’s Swiss-influenced style of cooking. Indiana-born Jeanne came to Chicago when she was 25. After a few restaurant stints, she realized she didn’t like line work. She found herself drawn to baking, but she needed to learn more. So she contacted Rolf’s Patisserie on Diversey where she worked one day a week without pay in exchange for learning the traditional ways of Swiss pastry making. The experience turned into a full-time job and a stepping stone for her own wholesale bakery and catering business.
A few months after that get-together over coffee, Birgit came on board as one of Jeanne’s employees. Within weeks they knew they wanted to start a new business, a neighborhood business, specifically a bakery. At the time, quality, European pastries weren’t that common and demand was starting to take off, especially for something new and different. The two were able to capitalize on that trend—and successfully so.
Café Selmarie has tripled in size since its start, and become a neighborhood institution. Not only can you enjoy the changing works of art on the walls by local artists, but on Thursday evenings during the summer, you can step out to listen to the free summer concert series on the square. The café also holds half-off “Wine Wednesdays” where a bottle of wine is half-priced with a dinner entrée and a $22 prix fixe menu on Thursday nights.
Monday, 11:00am – 3:00pm (serving lunch)
Tuesday – Thursday, 8:00am – 9:00pm
Friday and Saturday, 8:00am – 10:00pm
Sunday, Brunch from 9:00am – 8:00pm and
Dinner from 3:30pm – 8:00pm
Parking: Street, metered; city metered lot nearby