On a two-lane road at the outskirts of West Columbia, The Backyard Cafe is off the beaten path. For taste-of-home cooking and from-scratch ice cream served with Dixie hospitality, it’s worth a detour. Heck, it’s worth a detour just for an appetizer of artichoke spinach dip, which is thick and cheesy and served with hot tortilla chips — the best imaginable version of a familiar party dish.
The same good dip elevates fried chicken to a whole other plane in a dish called “Chicken Charlie”: a crisp-crusted breast on which the dip serves as luxurious gravy. Speaking of fried chicken breasts, consider a meal named “Southern Delight.” That’s a breast presented on a fried cheese-grits pallet and topped with bacon cheese sauce. These meals are dinner-only, served after 5pm.
All sorts of salads and sandwiches are available at lunch, when hamburgers are a featured attraction. Thick, craggy beef patties come on steamed-soft buns with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and mayonnaise. Top of the line is The Backyard Burger, which includes bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions, melted cheddar cheese, and a ramekin of Backyard Cafe sauce, which is dilled aioli.
Side a burger with French fries, Tater Tots, potato salad, or an item called wing chips. If you order that last one, the waitress will ask, “Crisp or floppy?” I was puzzled by the question, so she elucidated: “If you like potato chips, get crisp; if you like potato flavor, get floppy.” Regarding most foods, including chips, I am a crisp sort of guy, but I went with floppy and was delighted. They’re not visually compelling; they look undercooked and pale. But they deliver tremendous potato flavor, akin to a long-cooked baker but with agreeable chewiness. They are especially tasty when dipped in Backyard Cafe sauce.
On the subject of sauce, do consider Backyard Bites. Listed as an appetizer but enough to be a nice little carnivorous meal, this is a plate full of double-bite-size hunks of steak that have been marinated and grilled. Their beefy succulence is enhanced by a ramekin of creamy/hot horseradish dipping sauce.
Ice cream is made here, from scratch; and while some recipes go back to proprietor Peg Mead’s memories of hand-churning ice cream as a child, many flavors are inventive. A cheesecake surplus in the kitchen inspired the creation of peach cheesecake ice cream. Banana pudding remixes all the elements of the great comfort-food dessert. Chocolate malt includes broken-up chunks of malted milk balls. Oh, and by the way, vanilla isn’t just vanilla. It is labeled Very Vanilla. And it is!
Gooey cake is a house specialty; and as a Roadfood devotee might suspect, it is an out-of-context version of the St. Louis specialty there known as gooey butter cake. Peg tells me she is unaware of the St. Louis connection — she found the recipe long ago in a stack of cookbooks — but her version is the real thing: a flat, dense square of cake that is custard-soft and supersweet in its center but more cakelike at the edge. Triple chocolate gooey cake is a tidal wave of different chocolate flavors and textures; butter pecan truly is buttery, as well as crazy sweet. Topped with ice cream, whipped cream, and a cherry, a square of this cake is regal.
It isn’t easy to pigeonhole The Backyard Cafe as a type of restaurant because it has a personality all its own. Although West Columbia is a city, the location is a rural-seeming stretch of road; casual hospitality makes it feel more like a small-town cafe. The menu is Dixie, home-cooking, party fare, blue-plate, and burgers.
Completely aside from the good food and friendly vibe, I like this place for the hospitality of its house mascot, a cat named Gray. He is a fellow who greets arriving customers at the front porch, then hops onto a window ledge from which he can peer in and watch people eat. Gray — who showed up as a stray — is well-fed enough that he’s not longing for food; he’s just curious, and happy to have company. Cat lovers on their way out of the restaurant give Gray a good all-over scratching, which gets him purring like a V-8 (or feline) Jaguar.