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Capitol Hill Mainstay Volunteer Park Cafe Reopens With Intriguing New Menu and Nods to the Past

Canlis alums Crystal Chiu and Melissa Johnson have taken the reins, retaining the cafe’s coziness but adding plenty of personal touches

The blackboard coffee menu and counter at Volunteer Park Cafe with white flowers in the foreground.
After months of renovations, Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry is now open.
Gabe Guarente

On a quiet, leafy corner of Galer Street and 17th Avenue East, there’s once again the welcome sign of activity inside the Volunteer Park Cafe. Pastry chef Crystal Chiu is bustling around the small kitchen, while manager Melissa Johnson carries armloads of paper cups and other supplies through the renovated space. New owner James DeSarno — a local architect and wine mogul — pops up at one point from cleaning the basement and proudly points out some of the new overhead lighting, noting that the well-known front counter has been preserved, as has the vintage sign in the back that says “Groceries.”

Eight months after previous owner Ericka Burke officially sold the place, the shop quietly reopened last week as Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry, a hybrid coffee shop, bottleshop, and corner market. While not a complete soup-to-nuts overhaul, the renovations have been significant (the building, after all, is over a century old), and former Canlis alums Chiu and Johnson are running the show, bringing some creative new energy to the cozy confines.

“I love neighborhood cafes and bakeries,” says Johnson, an East Coast native and home baker (one of her side projects became a short-lived bagel pop-up at Canlis in early 2020). She and Chiu recognized that the neighborhood’s denizens already have a deep connection to the cafe — which has long been known for great breakfast dishes, coffee, and pastries — so making sure the staples were still strong was important, even as they brought in their own sensibilities and passions.

A selection of wine bottles on a table with a large vintage sign that says “Groceries” in the background.
The Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry has a wide selection of wines and other goods for retail.
Gabe Guarente

For instance, Johnson’s Northeast roots come through in the menu’s egg cream and a breakfast sandwich that she says is as close to a faithful “New York deli” recreation as she could muster, where the American cheese comes oozing out of the poppy seed bun to create a cream-like sauce. That should be a top seller, although Johnson says some of the more popular savory dishes so far are the toasts, which include a whipped ricotta and summer squash variety and one topped with white bean spread and pickled mushrooms. On the coffee menu are roasts from Olympia Coffee, which the shop chose as a partner for both its quality product and hands-on training.

Meanwhile, Chiu — who hails from Texas, and has spent a good deal of time abroad in Asia and Australia — brings several sweet influences from her fine dining background and world travels. In the pastry case, diners will find slices of a vegan coconut hazelnut cake, as well as a hawaij-flavored snickerdoodle, cocoa nib brown butter meringue, strawberry rhubarb galette, and chocolate babka, although selections will rotate seasonally. Those who remember the pear cardamom muffins from the previous version of Volunteer Park Cafe can take heart that Chiu uses the same recipe to make a seasonal plum walnut version.

The market aspect is dominated by natural wine bottles (also available by the glass), which aligns with DeSarno’s background as co-owner of Yakima Valley winery Freehand Cellars. But other PNW purveyors have their goods for sale, including San Juan Island Sea Salt and nut butter from Ground Up, a Portland-based business that provides job training for womxn overcoming adversity. Johnson and Chiu hope to eventually add to the selections and say that pop-up collaborations or small dinner parties with local chefs could be considerations down the line.

There’s a certain symmetry with the new folks in charge of building bridges to the community. Burke and pastry chef Heather Earnhardt opened Volunteer Park Cafe in January 2007 and, over the years, the spot built a loyal following in the neighborhood. Earnhardt eventually left to open Capitol Hill’s the Wandering Goose, while Burke stayed on until selling the spot during the pandemic, a deal that proved challenging to get done, as Capitol Hill Seattle has reported. Once she departed, Burke said she would miss the cafe’s warm vibe, a destination that had become “a meeting place, where everyone was welcome and belonged.”

Now it seems that the new stewards wish to carry on that legacy. Says Chiu, “If we share what we love, that’s how we connect.”

Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry is open for both takeout and dine-in (including some outdoor sidewalk seating). Hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Volunteer Park Cafe

1501 17th Avenue East, , WA 98112 (206) 328-3155 Visit Website