Cafe Al Dente: Cravings for Italian fare fed downtown


Al-DenteWarning: may cause hunger pangs and salivation.

Authenticity and freshness are the main ingredients being served up at downtown Vancouver’s Café Al Dente, a fine-dining Italian restaurant and wine bar. Downtown is home to a variety of independently owned small businesses, and Café Al Dente is mainly owner-operated as well. The restaurant’s owners, Zsolt and Sherri Barabas, do most of the work at any given time, and they have two employees who help out as well. The restaurant is spacious yet cozy, and examples of drool-inducing menu offerings include baked brie with pears, caprese salad, panini options, gnocchi, portobello ravioli and lobster ravioli.

Zsolt Barabas went to culinary school in his native Hungary and moved to the United States in 1987. He worked at restaurants in Seattle, Edmonds and Portland before opening up Café Al Dente five-and-a-half years ago with his wife, Sherri. The couple met while working at Ararat in Portland, where Zsolt was the kitchen manager and Sherri was the dining room manager.

The Barabases have been married for nearly 19 years. They raised three children in Vancouver schools, all of whom have now graduated. In 2006, after working in Portland for eight years but living in Vancouver, the availability came up downtown and they jumped at the chance to work closer to home. However, being located downtown is tough, according to Sherri, as there’s a lively lunch crowd but the area doesn’t see a lot of dinnertime visitors.

“People forget about us down here,” said Sherri, adding that Café Al Dente does benefit greatly from its regulars. “[We want to give] a huge thank-you to all our regulars. That’s what keeps us going.”

There’s plenty to keep diners going on Café Al Dente’s ample menu, which includes both Italian comfort food and truly gourmet-style offerings. The restaurant focuses on using fresh, local ingredients. The Barabases get their bread from Bleu Door Bakery uptown and regularly visit the farmer’s market for supplies. All of their sauces and soups are handmade. Additionally, aside from what needs to be made earlier in the day, such as sauces and lasagna, each individual dish ordered is made from scratch on the spot. Recurring customer favorites are the marsala and the seafood cannelloni.

TV exposure

Café Al Dente will be featured on Explore the Northwest on PDX TV at 6:00 a.m. on December 25. The program will show Zsolt and Sherri in the restaurant working and cooking, as customers share their input. The program will also be available to view online.

“We just need to refresh and remind everybody that we’re here,” said Sherri, pointing out that she can’t count the number of times she’s heard someone say, “I never knew you guys were here.”

Café Al Dente is closed during major holidays, and the Barabases take off for a winter vacation every year. This season they’ll be closed until January 3, but rest assured, that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming back.

Those of us who can manage to wait through the holidays will be joining Zsolt and Sherri for some fresh, homestyle Italian fare in the New Year.

For more information about Café Al Dente’s appearance on Explore the Northwest, visit

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