Clifton Cafe, Clifton, Va.
Ask any resident what it’s like to live near the nation’s capital, and the answer you’re likely to get will probably involve the phrase “The traffic sucks”. There really is no such thing as light traffic during the day in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and pretty much nothing within 50 miles of the District hasn’t been touched by the suburban sprawl. The population has done nothing but explode on the Virginia side, which was one reason that my family left Fairfax County when I was five years old.
That was 20 years ago, but the population growth never stopped in Fairfax or Prince William Counties, and as the years have gone on, the presence of Dulles International Airport dragged Loudoun County into the growth. Case in point, when I started high school in 2001, there were six high schools in Loudoun County, with the newest having just opened in 2000. Twelve years later, there are 13, with two more scheduled to open by 2015. There’s no end in sight, which means that these days, finding space to breathe in Northern Virginia is like trying to find water in the desert.
And then there’s Clifton, seemingly untouched by all of this growth. Despite being no more than 10 miles away from most of Fairfax County, Clifton remains a tiny town of less than 300 people and looks like something that stepped out of the 1950’s, a sharp contrast from the one-speed-only megalopolis that is Northern Virginia. Clifton has no stoplights and only two roads in or out of the town, with one of them being the main street.
Of course, the main street is home to a quaint little place called the Clifton Cafe, which completely ignores its total lack of competition to specialize in one of the most overlooked foods there is: crepes. Crepes are quite common in France, but the thin, filled batter is seldom seen here in the United States, probably because they’re so thin that they can be darn hard to make correctly. Even when made correctly, a thin batter can ruin the presentation because the filling can poke out of the crepe prematurely.
But the Clifton Cafe, located inside the century-old Weaver House (which was built in 1898 for the family that owned Clifton’s general store), doesn’t have any concerns about achieving the marriage of taste and presentation with the finicky food. The cafe offers 20 kinds of savory crepes that aren’t specialties, plus another 13 of the sweet variety. What’s more, the Clifton Cafe uses exotic ingredients and creative names for every crepe it sells. Here’s a small sampling of its Voodoo Doughnut-esque names:
Hannah’s Denver: Ham, cheddar, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and peppers
Randy’s Righteousness: Black Forest ham, Swiss, grilled onions, dijionaise
Evan’s Exotic Equation: Pesto aioli, grilled chicken, spinach, feta, tomatoes
Silva’s Savory: Grilled chicken, cheddar, guacamole, mango salsa
Dan’s Barbarian Beef: Roast beef, Havarti, mushrooms, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes, dijionaise
That last one sounds quite excellent, actually, and given that my name is involved, you would think that would have been my choice. But despite the factors of mushrooms, Havarti and my name going for it, I opted for another choice. The lure of Bittner’s Bliss was too strong, as the combination of spinach, artichokes, chicken and goat cheese inside the soft egg crepe was a combination that greatly appealed to me.
This proved to be for good reason, and the main factor was the goat cheese. Goat cheese is always creamy by nature, but this goat cheese spread was especially creamy and flavorful. The heat from the crepe only added to its texture, allowing it to mesh perfectly with the other flavors inside. The egg is incredibly light, allowing the interior flavors to shine through, exactly what you want from a crepe’s exterior. The spinach, artichokes and chicken are all excellent on their own, and the flavors work fantastically as one. I loved every bit of this, but the best ones were definitely the ones that had the goat cheese involved. The creaminess factor is what takes this crepe to the next level.
While I was enjoying crepe bliss, Amy opted for one of Clifton Cafe’s fantastic sandwiches. With 20 crepes available for lunch, you might wonder why anyone would choose to go for a sandwich instead…until you taste it. Amy chose pesto aioli, turkey and Havarti, some of her favorites, on tomato focaccia bread. What sets this apart is that with this bread, the tomato is baked right into the bread, bringing back memories of Ike’s Place’s Dirty Sauce. Much like Ike’s, baking the tomato and herbs into the bread gives the sandwich another layer of flavor that simply can’t be matched anywhere else. The bread is easily the best part of a truly awesome sandwich, simply because it’s homemade and completely unique.
Amy’s sandwich came with another unique item: a side of tabbouleh. For those who have never heard of it (which included us before trying it), tabbouleh is an Arab salad of bulgur, tomatoes, onions and herbs on a bed of spinach, which means it’s both pretty delicious and pretty healthy. It honestly tastes a lot like pico de gallo on top of spinach, and it’s not something that you’re going to find very often. This was a special item, so it might not even show up much here, which is a bit of a shame. We were fortunate.
Despite opting for a sandwich, Amy did get to taste a crepe of her own when we opted to try the other part of the Clifton Cafe’s crepes: the desserts. Along with its lineup of savory crepes, the Clifton Cafe offers 13 sweet dessert crepes, several of which have creative names themselves. After considering Don’s Delight (peanut butter, bananas, chocolate and powdered sugar, which means this should really be named after Elvis) and Blair’s Bumble Bee (Don’s Delight with honey instead of chocolate), we opted to go for berries and chocolate, choosing Sara’s Sweet Chocoberry, which mixes strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and a raspberry or two with strings of white and dark chocolate and some powdered sugar.
These berries were incredible. Honestly, this was like a chocolate fondue from first bite to last, with the creamy white chocolate providing a nice contrast to the dark chocolate. The berries seemed to never stop coming as long as some of the crepe remained, and it was truly an outstanding flavor experience. Chocolate and berries are a natural combination, and this one is one of the best pairings that I’ve ever tasted.
Even the drinks deserve a mention, because the beverages here are just as creative. Amy chose to go for tea, opting for a cinnamon plum iced tea, which was one of 10 specialty flavored iced teas that the Clifton Cafe serves. The flavors don’t seem like a great idea on paper, but in the drink, they work very well. The cinnamon is a bit on the strong side, but it’s still excellent.
I went for a cinnamon drink of my own, choosing a cinnamon bun frappe. All of the Clifton Cafe’s lattes can be served hot, iced or as a frappe, and I opted to blend cinnamon, vanilla and caramel into a frozen drink that proved to be outstanding. Other drinks include flavors such as coconut, almond, hazelnut, raspberry and pumpkin pie spice, giving enough options to satisfy anyone’s coffee cravings.
Clifton might be in the relative middle of nowhere in Fairfax County, but it’s worth making the trip on either Clifton Road or Chapel Road to get away from the big city for a couple hours and taste these crepes. It might not have the big city feel of its county neighbors, but the Clifton Cafe certainly gives Clifton a big city taste.
Time to go: Breakfast or lunch. The Cafe is open until 9 p.m. most days, but these are best enjoyed in a breakfast or lunch setting if possible.
Wait during my visit: Minimal, but that’s only because Clifton is out of the way. There is not a lot of space in here, so if it’s busy, you’re going to have to wait a while.
Location: The Clifton Cafe is located at 7144 Main Street in Clifton, Va.
Cost: Not bad. Most crepes or sandwiches are about $7 or $8. That’s a pretty affordable lunch. The coffees are on the pricey side at $5.25, but they’re worth the cost for the experience.
Parking: Not a lot, because Clifton is tiny. We didn’t find this on our visit there, but per Joe’s comment, there is in fact a small lot behind the Cafe for about 20 cars. We ended up in a small lot down Chapel Road, which should allow you to park and then make a short walk to the Cafe. If you can’t get into either lot, your best bet is street parking.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs
Website: Clifton Cafe
Specialty items: Crepes