Some days, it can be hard to tell if you’re on the right path to achieving your goals, but for Shawn and Barbara Smith, the dozens of loyal regulars at their White Bear Lake restaurant are a sure sign of success.
“When we first met, it was something we discussed about our future: becoming part of a town, a community,” says Barbara. “It’s special, but it’s not about us; it’s bigger than we are.”
Both Shawn and Barbara have long careers in the restaurant industry, from fast-food jobs in high school to corporate gigs writing employee manuals and training servers. Shawn got involved in the kitchen in 1988, and the couple moved to White Bear Lake two years later.
“We knew we had found home,” Shawn says of the city. “White Bear has got a tremendous community feel.”
The Smiths operated Backdoor Deli in downtown White Bear for a dozen years, along with foodSmith Catering Service in White Bear Township. When the location at the corner of Banning Ave. and Fifth St. became available, they knew they had found the home of their newest venture, EAT!@Banning and 5th, which opened there in 2012.
“When the opportunity presented itself, it was just the right thing at the right time,” Barbara says.
At EAT!, breakfast, lunch and dessert menus feature signature sandwiches, soups and sweets, all made in-house from scratch by Shawn and a small, passionate kitchen crew. The focus, Shawn says, is on simple food done right. “I have an ‘eight ingredients’ rule: I try to keep recipes to that or fewer ingredients,” says Shawn.
Two long communal tables anchor the bustling dining room, with a black-and-white checkered tile floor imparting a retro diner feel. Twelve-foot ceilings and two huge westward-facing windows keep the space light, airy and welcoming. A rotating selection of specials, from quiches in the morning to wraps in the afternoon, change with the seasons and keep things fresh for the counter-service restaurant’s dedicated regular customers.
“Barb and I are very fortunate that we love what we do, and we have the best customers on the planet,” says Shawn. When the Smiths decided to add a retail kitchenware store, EAT! Kitchen and Pantry Store, a year-and-a-half after opening, friends and family pitched in to help with the renovations.
“A group from church helped us paint, a local merchant and her husband helped build shelves and, a day before we opened, a couple spent all day cleaning and getting the place ready for the next day,” Shawn says. “It’s very rewarding when people like what you do, but they’re concerned about our lives outside of the restaurant, too. They want us to be successful and have a good life.”
The Smiths try to give back to the community that supports them, participating in Marketfest Thursdays in the summer and hosting Soup Kitchen Saturday every December, a day on which EAT! offers nearly 20 kinds of soup and asks patrons to pay a bit more for it, with every extra dollar matched by the Smiths and donated to the local food shelf. “People come in and volunteer to help serve,” says Shawn, “just because they want to be a part of it.”
Sweet, Savory, Seasonal
Every season has its quintessential foods, and fall brings with it some of our favorites: rich pumpkin, tart cranberry, hearty potpies and stews. At EAT!, chef Shawn Smith incorporates seasonal ingredients into the breakfast, lunch and dessert menus, with flavors that change daily based on availability, popularity and his imagination.
At lunch, a rotating selection of made-from-scratch soups ($3.45/cup, $5.75/bowl with bread), like cream of wild rice with chicken, broccoli cheese and corn chowder, will warm you up from the inside out; pair with a small salad or half sandwich ($7.95) for the perfect midday meal.
Satisfying sandwiches are a high point of the menu year-round, but the French dip ($9.45) seems tailor-made for a crisp fall day. Layers of shaved beef, caramelized onions and gooey melted Swiss cheese are piled on a thick, freshly baked roll and served with au jus, a light but meaty gravy, for dipping.
For breakfast, the ideal combination of salty and sweet is found in EAT!’s waffle ($4.95), a fluffy delight made from a hand-blended, scratch-made batter, served piping hot and golden crisp with honey butter and maple syrup. For an extra $2, the kitchen will add chopped pecans and smoky bacon to the waffle batter; trust us, your taste buds will thank you.
For dessert, choose from an assortment of miniature pies or cakes ($3.95). You can’t go wrong with classic fillings like cherry or pumpkin, but specialty options like the apple-cranberry-pecan, topped with a brown sugar and oatmeal crumble, are well-worth trying.
“We try to keep it simple and high-quality,” says Shawn. “A lot of chefs can overdo the layers and toppings; they forget that people enjoy good, simple, handcrafted food.”