The word "café" in the Music Hall Jazz Café doesn't mean it's mostly a food destination. The focus is on the sounds, of course. Still, while you're taking advantage of a fabulous nightspot — a recent gig was the Cookers, which one jazz wag declared before it even happened to be "among the best shows of 2010" — it's nice to know there are good eats as well as drinks on hand. If "Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast" (William Congreve, 1697), food, too, will smooth savage passions or normal grumpiness brought on by hunger pangs.
The 130-seat Jazz Café was opened in 2006 in Music Hall's former concessions area, a few steps down from the lobby, to showcase both national and local acts. The lineups go from hard bop veterans, such as the Cookers — some of whom played with names like Art Blakey and Max Roach — to local groups Judy Adams has chosen in her three-year-old Discovery Series, on no-cover Tuesdays. Wednesdays are a "Jazzy R&B Open Jam." There's a benefit for Haiti on Jan. 29, and local super-pianist Alvin Waddles does Fats Waller in "Ain't Misbehavin'" on Jan. 31 ($40 for brunch and the show). It's not all jazz but it is all quality stuff.
The space is lovely too, though it's long and narrow, so arrive early if you want to sit near the band. The beauty of the 1928 hall is most evident in the faux Moorish arches over the bar and in the ceiling painted with flowers inside eight-pointed stars. Tiny round tables are just big enough to hold your dinner and drinks, if you're a healthy eater. Judy Adams herself lit our tea candle.
The eclectic audience is laid-back, as is the general mood. One Tuesday, the audience was almost all musicians. For the Cookers, I saw several men escorting their ancient mothers.
Wisely, the kitchen concentrates on sandwiches, though chef John Acedillo says the most popular item is his lamb chop salad. It's three well-executed chops that demand to be eaten by hand, like a lollipop, on top of a pile of greens with goat cheese, dried cherries, candied pecans and much more. I thought it had way too much dressing, but it was a good dressing, a white balsamic vinaigrette. My friend liked her Caesar, again overdressed.
Sandwiches come with big, perfect steak fries. The Cuban is crunchy and filling, with lots of pickle. The Jazz Club is mashed like a Cuban, with melted cheese and plenty of bacon; how could it miss? The Jazz Master piles on sliced tenderloin. Sliders are also a possibility.
Appetizers are another way to go, with my favorite being the skewered coconut shrimp: light, crisp, just a tad sweet. Chicken or beef quesadillas are served with a creditable guacamole as well as salsa and sour cream, and Cuban black bean soup, a mix of whole beans and purée, has a vinegar kick.
Positions on our order of crab cakes ranged inexplicably from "light and fluffy" (a man) to "sodden" (a woman); I found them in-between: quite tall, with some discernible chunks (a good thing), but missing the crisp outside a crab cake deserves.
There's only one dinner-type entrée per se on the menu — those same three lamb chops, but less interestingly presented, with rice and green beans — and a couple of desserts.
Service is slow, due to understaffing, so arrive way early if you want to eat before the music starts. I can never understand why some diners get upset when the server mixes up who gets which dish — what? you're too weak to pass your plate across the table? — but for those who care, this was a minor demerit one night. But a too-wet martini was cheerfully replaced with a dry one, which is more important.
As in almost every restaurant in the world, one thing you won't find on the Jazz Café menu is kidneys. That's my awkward segue to the fact that John Acedillo just gave up one of his, donating it to former Music Hall president Sandy Duncan, who really needed it. Acedillo was off recuperating when I visited in January, so perhaps the kitchen will be different with him there. But that's not important compared to the grandness of Acedillo's gesture, is it? Thought you ought to know.
To buy tickets to a Jazz Café show, call Music Hall or see Ticketmaster. Food is served from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on weekends.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.