When I suggested meeting a friend for lunch recently at Coffee News Cafe, her reaction was, "Wow, I didn't even know they served food."

They always have -- there's a long menu of sandwiches, salads and soups -- but Coffee News certainly wasn't a place you went for the food. Macalester students and professors might open their laptops and decide, "Yeah, a turkey sandwich and a side of garlic fries sounds pretty good, might as well." But that was incidental; it was food as fuel more than dining.

Now Coffee News Cafe wants to change that. Six months ago, chef Cathy Mindel came aboard with the goal of bringing in diners rather than eaters. She pared down the milelong menu to the greatest hits (yes, she kept the beloved garlic fries), refocused on scratch cooking, added a for-real dinner menu and generally brought the whole thing out of the avocado-and-sprouts decade. Next on her list: revamping the dessert case, bringing in cakes and treats distinguished more by their flavor than their size. (By the way, the coffee no longer qualifies as St. Paul's worst, either.)

We gave the cafe's new grass-fed burger and the fish sandwich a try, along with sides of sweet potato fries and a warm goat cheese salad. Everything we tasted gets an A for effort, with room for improvement. Best was the fish sandwich -- sure, Mindel plays it safe with the tilapia, but it was piping hot, with a crispy, salty crust on the outside and flaky on the inside. Or maybe the best thing was the sweet potato fries. I guess it comes down to how you define "fries," because "fried" they are not. Thin-cut slivers of sweet potato are roasted so that they are tender and tasty and still very much the texture of sweet potatoes. Heaven for sweet-potato lovers, but they won't satisfy people jonesing for that crispy-on-the-outside, airy-on-the-inside fry.

While we were glad to see a grass-fed burger on the menu, it was a bit dry inside. Grass-fed cows are practically like game in their fat content, so dry burgers are always a hazard.

Still, it feels great (and a little disorienting) to be discussing serious food like sweet potatoes and goat cheese at Coffee News Cafe. This is valuable real estate on Grand Avenue's restaurant row, and we're glad to see the cafe step up its game. Mindel says she has established relationships with Hope Creamery and Coastal Seafoods and will be on the lookout for local, organic and sustainable where finances allow.

The weathered dining room is getting a bit of a face-lift, as well, with some warmer touches. And the whole place will get a much-needed coat of paint soon. "We're working on the whole image," Mindel says. "We won't close the place down, though -- it's going to be gradual."

The Churn

South Minneapolis bistro Citizen Cafe is shutting its doors until April 10 at 4 p.m. The time off will give the restaurant time to renovate and construct a wine bar.

  • The Heavy Table team writes about food and drink in the Upper Midwest five days a week, twice a day, at www.heavytable.com.