The Common Ground Café: Where a Fare Trade Is Enjoyed By All
Where can one go to find a place off the beaten path while never leaving a bustling thoroughfare such as Main Street? It may seem riddle-like, but before you spend any time trying to come up with a clever answer, in Hyannis there is such a place: The Common Ground Café. Located at 420 Main Street, nestled between The British Beer Co. and Diamond Perfections, The Common Ground has been quietly going about their business of producing some simple (and not so simple) fare that is simply delicious. For 17 years, it’s been serving up their unique brand of comfort food and hospitality in a truly distinctive setting to dedicated fans that genuinely span all walks of life. In this way, The Common Ground is decidedly uncommon.
Let’s start with the space. The café is a wonder of reclamation. As you step through the front door for the first time, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve been transported to some other place, some other time. Within these old barnboard-clad walls, booths have been built not only from reclaimed lumber, but from tree trunks, branches and limbs—all in their natural forms. No honing or planing here. It’s one thing to use dimensional lumber for the frames of the booths, but what about that gnarly little oak branch? How about using it as a table leg? Some of the booths have their own walls and crooked little shingled roofs. Since not all of the materials are gathered at once, the benches have some amount of leather on them, affixed in a patchwork manner….just tack on more as it becomes available. Old bushel baskets form the hanging light fixtures to complete the scene that could be straight out of a Tolkien novel, the Keebler tree or maybe an Ewokian hut from the forest moon of Endor.
The menu consists of soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps and desserts. All in all pretty common, but they make everything from scratch with only the freshest ingredients. You’ve heard that as well from time to time? Then again this is The Common Ground Café, so things are done just a little differently. Take for example the Deli Rose. It’s their own creation of smoked turkey, melted pepper jack and mozzarella cheeses, tomato, onion and hot ketchup served warm on a steaming buttered roll. Now we’re getting away from the norm. At The Common Ground, many of the warm sandwiches (excluding the Reuben and grilled cheese) take a shvitz before being served. That’s to say that, according to The Common Ground’s manager Nezer (rhymes with laser), the café is the only place around to get steamed sandwiches. After the sandwiches are assembled, they are placed in a steamer for a few short moments and out comes the deliciously warm sandwich tucked in the softest, tastiest roll. The Pauper Special on the menu is a hit with the Sturgis Charter School students who descend on the place for lunch because they love it and the price. (A little tip, if you’re looking for a time when the café is a little quieter: stay away between 11:35 am-12:30 pm on school days. That’s the lunch break for Sturgis, which is across the street.)
The matchless menu continues with the beverages. The featured drink is mate, a tea brewed from the leaves of the yerba mate tree that grows in Brazil. It’s an evergreen in the holly family. You can have your mate plain or blended with lemon, peach or papaya. Another area where The Common Ground stands apart is in their smoothies. The all-fruit smoothies are made with frozen fruit, so no ice is needed. That helps the smoothies hold their consistency and flavor and keeps them from melting down into a watery cup of “blah”. They’re so thick and delicious that the straws are as big as small garden hoses.
Dessert features more items off of the “Well, you don’t see that everyday” index. How about trying a piece of Cream Cheese Pie topped with fresh strawberries, or maybe the Maple Cream Cookie? That’s actually a sandwich of two oatmeal cookies filled with a maple cream center. If you’re looking for something a touch lighter, try the Carob Nut Cluster, a knot of peanuts, pecans, raisins and coconut covered in carob. Carob is a naturally sweet alternative to cocoa that’s low in fat, high in fiber and has no caffeine.
There are a couple of additions to the menu that Common Ground fans set their weekly calendars by as well: the black bean chili served on Wednesdays is a crowd favorite, and Common Ground serves up ten gallons of their haddock chowder every Friday. Get your order in early for both of these favorites!
It’s all dished up by a staff whose smiles, like their food, are genuine. They truly want to know when they ask, “How are you?” The quality of the food is paramount, but the quality of service is a major reason this terrific casual food experience has thrived. With the folks at The Common Ground, however, it’s not a business strategy. It is a way of life. The staff of The Common Ground is more a family than a collection of workers. They live and work together in a Messianic community with a goal of tending to the needs of others and, in doing so, having their needs met.
Throughout the multiple Common Ground Cafés (Hyannis, Boston, Quincy), they offer their own line of Common Sense products. Body washes, soaps and lotions are on the shelves along with handmade knit hats and gloves, teas and honey. The pre-packaged granola for sale comes in peanut butter, maple pecan and Cape Cod cranberry flavors, and it’s all made on the premises.
The success of the business will soon translate into a new expanded location at 255 Main Street in 2015. The plan for the whopping 8000 square feet of space is to have the familiar trademark décor. However, in addition to the restaurant, there will be a much larger market selling deli meats and cheeses, a bakery for all of the restaurant’s needs and also for sale to the public. Upwards of eight different kinds of bread will be offered. And, with the expanded space comes expanded hours. The plan is to be open by three in the morning and to close at midnight. It would be 24 hours a day if the Town of Barnstable didn’t have a midnight to three curfew. Either way, it would finally provide a counterpoint to the argument that nothing good happens after midnight.
A major goal of The Common Ground is consistency. They endeavor to prepare all their items the same way every day. You can enjoy the same wonderful flavor of the Baked Haddock Sandwich (with homemade tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato on a steaming roll) or the Vegan Hummus Wrap (homemade roasted garlic hummus, salad mix, bell peppers, red onions and sprouts served with balsamic vinaigrette) six days or six months from now. The menu stays as consistent as each of its choices from the beginning to the end of the day. Whether for lunch or dinner, there’s one menu. As Nezer says, “We just try and serve good, wholesome and not elite food. We want to make it desirable and attainable for everybody.”
Ah…just when it was starting to sound like The Common Ground Café was more than a bit of a misnomer, we’ve come to the end that justifies the means: to simply offer something healthy and fresh that is appealing to everyone, so that people from all walks of life can come together and find some common ground with one another. Young or old, rich or poor, local or tourist, the qualities that bind us outnumber those that divide us. We just need to take our blinders off to see them, and it looks like the way to everyone’s heart is through his or her stomach. The image on The Common Ground’s sign is that of the two main characters in the old folk tale, The Prince and the Pauper. In it, they have come together, and looking past their different backgrounds, share food and drink while finding some common ground.
Wholesome, tasty fare crafted with care in a setting that makes you smile, provided by a staff that strives to offer the utmost in hospitality: for 17 years, The Common Ground Cafe has proven to be uniquely, inimitably, and (with all due respect to Keebler) uncommonly good.