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Restaurant Review / A culinary beacon Main Street Cafe, oasis in dingy area, offers tasty fare, reasonable prices

Let's face it, parts of Main Street look like a war zone.

But between the boarded-up storefronts, the pock-marked streets and the largely abandoned sidewalks, there are tiny little pockets of sanity, sanctuaries from the storm, places to take refuge -- if only for as long as it takes to consume an economical meal.

Main Street Cafe is one such beacon.

The cafe is a homey little place tucked comfortably behind a tall, wrought iron fence down near the foot of Main.

It isn't pretty on both sides of the cafe or, for that matter, directly across the street. Beirut in its worst days was only slightly less picturesque.

Situated back off the street -- a wise move, if purely unintentional at the time -- the cafe represents a Band-Aid on the blight that is that end of town. Encased in a small, parklike setting, it immediately puts diners at ease, even before they walk through the doors into a '50s-style luncheonette.

It's small, but surprisingly roomy. There's plenty of space to maneuver between tables, booths and counter chairs, even if you happen to be maneuvering a wheelchair.

The decor is an eclectic blend of Oriental and Americana, of old and new. Oh, and there are a few newspaper clippings on the wall chronicling the success of the Gratto family, who opened the place in '92 and have been going strong ever since.

They deserve all the accolades they can get for making a go of it in this city, in this neighborhood, in this economic climate. It's easy to see how they've done it.

Simply put: good food better prices even better service = S-U-C-C-E-S-S.

It's no secret.

Main Street Cafe offers a relatively simple menu, featuring no gourmet ingredients and nothing else one might consider "fancy." They just do what they do, and they do it well, and, judging by the clientele during our visit, they've developed quite a loyal following, many of whom they've come to know not only by name, but by when they're due in.

The food was excellent, plain and simple, during a recent visit. I hesitated before ordering the strip steak special ($9.99), fearing I'd get one of those strip steaks that resemble more of a bacon strip. I went for it anyway, and was glad I did.

The steak was thick and full -- not a 16-ouncer, but hearty enough for breakfast or brunch. Coupled with a couple of eggs over-easy, some rye toast and a helping of home fries, it made for a fine Hungry Man breakfast.

I tried the steak "au naturel" first -- no steak sauce or other enhancements -- just to gauge the flavor. I ordered it medium, and medium it was, nicely juicy inside. The flavor was authentic. It cut easily (even with a dull bladed knife) and, despite a little gristle, went down easily and without any problems. The steak sauce only enhanced the experience.

Everything else was fine; the home fries could have been a tad crispier, but that's simply a personal preference.

My wife, Teresa, beat me to the punch by ordering the hot pepper omelette special ($4.25), which came with home fries and toast. She went with Italian. All the toast was excellent, especially with the little containers of jelly that were provided.

Her omelette was large and was literally teeming with Jalapeno peppers -- oodles of them. A couple of bites were pretty hot, she said, but then, that's what she wanted.

She was still feeling the effects some time later, but was more than happy with her order.

The menu includes all the usual suspects: eggs, cereals, sandwiches, grilled sandwiches, salads, homemade soups and chili and more. Aside from the steak-and-eggs, the next costliest thing is a cube steak or liver-and-onions plate at $7.99, then a Julienne salad at $6.99. After that, the prices drop precipitously, with most items going for between $3 and $4, and many considerably less.

The service is friendly and personal and timely, and you're not left out on an island. You need a refill, you get a refill, and while you're still thirsty. How's that for taking care of people?

It's no wonder this place has earned commendations and awards. They're richly deserved. Keep up the good work, Main Street Cafe, and hopefully the community around you will once again flourish as do you.

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>Main Street Cafe

2021 Main St., Niagara Falls (284-4415)

Review: Three 1/2 stars (Out of four)

Favorite dish: Strip steak breakfast

Needs work: Edge on steak knife

Healthy choice: Chicken salad

Price range: Tasty for any palate

Service: Very good

Noise level: Fine

Wheelchair access: Yes

Parking: On-street

Kid appeal: OK

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