By all accounts, Napoleon Bonaparte was not a gourmet. He was notorious for gobbling his food and leaving the table while others were still decorously nibbling appetizers. The restless, impatient general may have been the emperor of the French, but he had a very un-Gallic attitude toward savoring his national cuisine.
The Hermosa Beach cafe that bears his surname is conducive to more genteel, reflective meals than he enjoyed. The location on Pier Plaza a few steps from the ocean is easy to miss thanks to the fact its sign is on a patterned background – only the yellow umbrellas and outdoor tables make it clear that there’s a restaurant here.
Once you’re inside, it’s obvious that they bake too, as cases of pastries beckon. Many people just stop in for pastry and coffee, but there are good reasons to explore the menu further.
The breakfast menu includes omelets, oatmeal and granola bowls with fruit, plus omelets and French-style egg sandwiches on croissants or lightly sweet brioche toast.
My favorite breakfast item is the Croque Monsieur – the name means “crunch this, sir,’ which I suppose is helpful if you have ordered a sandwich and can’t remember what you are supposed to do with it. It’s a ham sandwich topped with Gruyere cheese and baked until the cheese melts, a simple and delicious thing. The eatery also offers the Croque Madame – the same thing, with a poached egg on top. (The name seems to suggest that French women have bigger appetites than men, but it may have originated because the bulge of the egg on top made it look like a woman’s hat.) Either is offered on whole grain bread or brioche; I prefer the whole grain even though it may be a bit more Californian than French. The breakfasts here are served all day, so even if you’re here for lunch you might consider giving one of these a try.
The lunch menu offers mainly paninis and other sandwiches, with a smattering of quiches, salads and other items. The soup and sandwich or soup and quiche combos are very popular and very filling – I’ve enjoyed a tasty but messy grilled vegetable panini along with a cream of cauliflower.
I was less thrilled with the onion and Gruyere quiche because it appeared to have been reheated in the microwave that made the crust soggy. The taste of the egg, cheese and onion filling was fine, and I’d have preferred it reheated in an oven, or even cold with the crust still firm.
The best item I’ve had at Café Bonaparte was the most modern – a salad of smoked salmon with lemon zest, romaine hearts and shredded fennel in a lemon dressing. The big bowl of salad was a terrific hot weather cooler, flavors of lemon, seafood and tangy flavor perfectly matched. It was priced at $10 and worth every penny.
Dessert, alas, was not always up to the same standard as the entrees. I had a pain du chocolat that looked beautiful and had a crisp exterior, but was more dense and chewy should be. It’s possible that the humidity near the water affects the crispness of the pastry, even at an early lunch, so it might be better at breakfast when fresh from the oven.
Since I was at Café Bonaparte, I had to try a Napoleon – a confection not named after the emperor but because it was invented in Naples. This was better than the croissant by far, with pastry cream and strawberries between pastry sheets, and I’d happily have one again.
The atmosphere at Café Bonaparte is serene, the staff generally friendly though service is sometimes slow.
The emperor who rushed through his meals would not have approved, but for the diners who enjoy lingering over coffee and pastries either outside or in the pleasant dining room with murals of Hermosa, it’s a fine experience.