“The place to be happy is here, the time to be happy is now.”
That's just one of the many signs that seem to fill every empty space of John and Barbara Messmore's Sweet Sage Cafe, but it's clearly the restaurant's driving philosophy.
Behind the giant flora and fauna murals that dominate the exterior, past the white-picket fence and the ivy-covered arbor, past the “Men to the left, because women are always right” sign, you enter under a round striped awning into multiple dining spaces that are also part tea room, part gift shop. Serving breakfast and lunch only, Sweet Sage is a refuge from the clamor of Gulf Boulevard, a hidden oasis in North Redington Beach.
As I sip fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, the “You’re not fat, you’re just easy to see” sign above the door catches my eye. Nevertheless, I opt for traditional eggs Benedict, which isn’t really traditional. It’s got shaved ham instead of Canadian bacon and whole-grain flatbread instead of an English muffin. If you’re looking for a gourmet version with Thomas Keller poached eggs and Julia Child hollandaise, you’ll be disappointed. If you just want a pleasant breakfast, you’ll be fine. The eggs are clearly poached in a circular cup rather than in simmering liquid, and I always keep my expectations in check when it comes to hollandaise sauce — anywhere.
Real hollandaise is ethereal, with butter slowly combined with egg yolks as they warm and emulsify into a creamy wonder that has a delicious lemony edge. This is not a practical approach for a beach cafe, regardless of its aspirations. The same is true for free-form poached eggs. Sweet Sage’s “hollandaise” is generic and nondescript; there’s little taste. It provides a creamy texture, but is clearly made in big batches to be ladled over a bunch of breakfast items without getting in the way. It could be much worse.
Alongside the many breakfast items, hot chunky apples, hash browns, grits or extra fruit are offered. The fruit is a nice, pretty mix even if the melon is not always fully ripe. The shredded hash browns are golden on the outside and soft on the inside. The grits are creamy but could use salt. They don’t have a lot of taste either.
Instead of omelets, the cafe serves the ever-so-more-practical “Sweet Sage Scramblers,” with wide-ranging combos from the California (guac, salsa, bacon and cheese) to Italian (bruschetta mix, black olives and Parmesan) to Black & Blue (shaved roast beef, mushrooms and blue cheese). I opt to go the Western route with sliced ham, onions, peppers and cheese. It works.
French toast with canned peaches, pecans and imitation maple syrup is, again, fine. I am spoiled — I want fresh peaches and pure syrup. No one else in the crowded dining room seems to mind.
The sweet spot on the menu appears to be $9.98, which is the price point for a majority of the items. Wrap … $9.98, quiche … $9.98, scramblers … you guessed it. This makes your calculation simple. The entire menu is affordable, the service is welcoming, the goofy signs are endearing and the “Garden of Eatin’” (complete with dog sculpture and the Bay’s best canine menu) is as enjoyable as it gets when casually dining on Gulf Boulevard.
For lunch, we enter this dog-friendly haven (“Some of my best friends have paws and fur”) that stretches the length of the building. One of the ubiquitous signs draws a chuckle from the women in my group: “Grow your own dope; plant a man!” I know when to stay silent.
One test of the kitchen is the deluxe steak burger with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion. Sweet Sage nails it. The juicy beef and toasty bun are terrific. Raspberry and blue cheese coleslaw (usually on the fish taco) successfully accompanies.
We choose the High Energy wrap, which stuffs spicy grilled chicken, hummus, romaine lettuce, cucumber and tomato into a sun-dried tomato tortilla. It’s just great. The bacon, tomato and blue cheese quiche is homemade, although the crust is not, and it’s also topped with “hollandaise” sauce.
“Drinking can cause memory loss, or even worse, memory loss.” The piña colada is a mug filled with what seems to be a pineapple-coconut milkshake topped with whipped cream. This sweet theme also carries over to the handsome Bloody Mary, which is served in a mug dominated by a huge, leafy branch of celery. They urge you to “please caffeinate responsibly” and carry a wide variety of hot or iced espresso drinks.
“Life is uncertain, eat dessert first.” A fat, moist slice of piña colada cake delivers as advertised. But the real winner is the key lime pie (from Mike’s Pies) which is everything this dessert should be. It’s creamy and tart, and nearly perfect.
My table is convinced: “…the time to be happy is now.”