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Cafe Sonder settles in at former Zia Diner spot

November 9, 2016 GMT

The doors at 326 S. Guadalupe St. have opened once again. When they shut in February on the last days of the Zia Diner, it left a void on the block, a sense of loss like a long-loved family portrait turned to the wall. But the same Santa Feans who miss the Zia Diner can take solace that if they walk through those doors now, their bellies and souls will be once again fed quality comfort food brought to them by a longtime Santa Fe family.

Daniel Razatos is the owner of the Plaza Cafe downtown, a venerable Santa Fe landmark, and it seems appropriate that the Razatos family takes up the space formerly occupied by another Santa Fe institution. The building is historic and not much has been changed outside except the sign, but the inside has had a full overhaul. The carpeting and tile and green diner décor have been replaced with wood floors, modern red art lamps and chic cafe seating (although they kept the lower booths). The former lunch counter is now the waiter pickup spot, and the former waiting area is now a sunny lunch counter with endearing details like French presses full of flowers.

“I have three sons, and we needed something more for all the family,” Razatos says. “The family’s growing — we can’t all be located in one restaurant. We’d been looking for a space for about two-and-a-half years. Then this space came up, and we sprung up and took it.”

Cafe Sonder, which opened last Thursday, is a bit more upmarket, and while it springs from the Plaza Cafe tree, it is a very different fruit by design. While Razatos has a special place in his heart for his original restaurant, he admits that it is somewhat restrained by the nature of its success.

“The Plaza Cafe is a unique institutional restaurant. It’s hard to change anything there. It is what it is, and I enjoy it,” Razatos laughs. “And people get upset if you change anything. They riot. … Here we get to be a little more creative with another style of cooking that I love to do — real modern American food.”

The menu features mostly dishes that fall into the “comfort food” category, but Razatos seems to have nailed the selection of dishes that make you want to try everything once.

“It’s a little more farm-to-table,” Razatos says. “We do that at the Plaza, too, but people don’t realize that. We buy only New Mexico beef; we source from New Mexico as much as we can. Here we can really feature that more, and can change the menu more frequently with the seasons.”

The breakfast menu (served from 7 to 11 a.m. every day) is distinctively brunchy in a big-city way, including avocado toast on nine-grain bread, smoked salmon with capers on crostini and slow-roasted lamb with a potato and green chile hash, along with the classic bacon and eggs, Greek omelet and a breakfast burrito given some flair with black beans and chorizo. There also is an intriguing Japanese farmhouse breakfast of seasoned rice, smoked tofu, egg, mushrooms and nori (seaweed) — the kind of thing you see on the menu at a Bay Area brunch spot.

Lunch and dinner has an upscale cafe vibe to it, with all the sandwiches you would expect (grass-fed local beef burgers, a bison burger, a gyro pita (the Razatos are Greek, after all) and even a prime rib sandwich. Sandwich prices hover around $12, and the prime rib is only $13. This is by design — while Razatos wants the restaurant to have an “out to dinner” feel, he believes dinner should be something one can eat regularly.

“It’s always been my dream to bring a high quality of food without the price or the attitude,” Razatos says. “Sometimes you go in a restaurant and the waiter looks down at you because you’re in his restaurant. It bugs me.”

And because Cafe Sonder doesn’t want to compete with either Plaza Cafe, there is no New Mexican food on the menu, replaced by more American continental large plates such as the red chile roasted pork ribs, a roast chicken plate, steak frites, a wedge salad, etc.

“America is now a melting pot; there’s food from everywhere. I want to take all that in and bring it here,” Razatos says. “My daughter came in and said, ‘Ah, it tastes like when you cook at home, Dad.’ ”

And a few months down the road, when Cafe Sonder receives its beer and wine license, Razatos plans to turn the former Zia bar area into a gastropub with a row of beer taps, a longish wine list and a more casual bar menu, including pizzas and more burgers, at a lower price point. And because Razatos would ideally like to serve his customers through their whole day, beginning (and maybe ending) at their coffee bar/pastry counter full of croissants, cookies and cinnamon rolls made in-house, like everything else at Cafe Sonder, including the bread and the coffee, which has always been roasted in-house for Plaza Cafe and now Cafe Sonder.

Which leaves only one question: What does the name mean? Razatos originally wanted to call the new place “The Twisted Fork,” but his daughter suggested “Cafe Sonder” instead. “Sonder” is a made-up word from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online compendium in which Koenig creates words to define emotions for which English has no concise equivalent (they also pop up often as memes).

“Sonder,” as defined by Koenig, means something like, “The sudden realization that the people around you are living lives as complex and varied as your own” — the shock of inadvertent empathy, perhaps, or the humility brought on by the understanding that while others might be bit players in your life, you are a bit player in theirs. This is a heady idea for a restaurant, but the definition, written in chalk at the entrance, gives you something to think about as you scan the rest of the patrons and wonder not only what lives they’re living, but what they might be ordering.

IF YOU GO:

Where: 326 S. Guadalupe St.

When: 7 to 9 p.m. every day

Contact: Visit www.cafesonder.com or call 505-982-9170