By Bill Gerdes
On February 12, 2010 Simple Simon’s in downtown Riverside was devastated by a fire that gutted the bistro and left co-owners Susan Thiel and Mark Rubin facing the prospects of rebuilding their cafe after having been in the same spot for 14 years. Almost as upset were local Riversidians who had relied on the place as their failsafe lunch (and often breakfast) joint for years, as well as the spot one took friends and relatives from out of town. Luckily for all interested parties as of August 2, Simple Simon’s is up and running again.
Except for a fresh coat of burnt orange paint and a couple of new menu items (the Smoky Grilled Cheese and the Open-Faced Pizza), the song remains the same at Simon’s, for mostly better but sometimes ill. The bistro’s quirks still bug me: must every server look so central casting/tragically hip? The prices on the specialty sandwiches are threatening to enter the teens, while Rubin’s demeanor at the cast register is a sort of jazzy disinterest meets cocky gruffness, seemingly saying, “You’re freaking lucky I’m letting you order one of my delicious sandwiches today.”
But damn if he isn’t right—Simple Simon’s can still cook up an amazing lunch.
When it comes to the specialty sandwiches, I don’t think there’s a stinker in the bunch. On the day we stopped in I went for the Italian Grinder, an updated notion on the classic served on fresh ciabatta bread, lovely and—like all the bread—made on-site. With a fantastic pesto sauce, Provolone, fresh tomato, lettuce and sweet red pepper, the grinder could hardly go wrong, but when combined with nice cuts of salami and ham, this update on a traditional grinder packs a meaty punch that is quite scrumptious.
With our other choice, the Croissant Club, it was a matter of us wanting to lose some of the meat, a request our server happily took care of. Suddenly our choice of roast beef, ham, or turkey, became double cheese, double avocado and all was instantly well in the universe. Now, as my girlfriend pointed out, it’s hard to screw up a croissant with avocado, cheese and bacon on it and luckily they don’t. It’s an elegant version of the croissant sandwich one might gobble up the morning after a big night.
It’s worth noting that their sides still range from the tasty to the sublime. The fresh fruit is just that, yummy melon, strawberry and orange, but it might be time to update that fruit cup just a smidge. Meanwhile the pasta salad continues to be a Platonic ideal of what pasta salad should be, thin slices of Kalamata olives, wedges of delicious carrots and parmesan cheese, served up with al dente tricolor spirals. Nice.
I could nitpick and say with the fire and all Simon’s could have taken that as an opportunity to take a few new directions with their menu and perhaps branch out a bit. There’s a risk in this sort of culinary stasis, namely that Simple Simon’s might start to feel a bit dated. But so far that hasn’t happened. It’s a relief to have the place back.
Simple Simon’s Bakery & Bistro, 3639 Main St., Riverside, (951) 369-6030. Mon-Fri 7AM-5PM, Sat 7:30AM-5PM (Lunch served until 4PM). AE, D, MC and V.