Situated on the corner of Belmont St., Sofra Bakery & Cafe has always had a loyal following, but lately lines have been longer than usual.
On a sunny Saturday morning in Cambridge, the line winded its way out the door of the restaurant around the corner onto Holworthy Street. Business has been booming at Sofra following its inclusion in The New York Times’ “The Restaurant List” from Oct. 12, which names the 50 restaurants The New York Times is currently “most excited about.”
Since the article came out, lines at Sofra have been consistently out the door, according to Payal Parikh, the general manager of Sofra. Sofra was the only restaurant in Massachusetts to make the list.
“It has been [like this] since the New York Times article came out,” Parikh said. “Otherwise, yes, there’s always a line, not this long, but it has been since the … article came out, during [both] the weekdays and weekends.”
Executive Chef Ana Sortun and Executive Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick, first opened Sofra Bakery and Cafe in August 2008 following a trip to Turkey where they were inspired by the simultaneously rich yet light quality of the food there, according to Parikh.
“Both Ana and Maura had worked in Turkish restaurants in the past and they had really fallen in love with Turkey and its flavors,” Parikh said.
Sofra offers a variety of sweet, savory, and contemporary interpretations of traditional Turkish, Lebanese, and Greek cuisine, according to the Sofra website. The restaurant is particularly inspired by the food in the Levant region, Parikh said.
Some of its signature dishes include a spinach falafel, a morning bun, and its earthquake cookie, a rich chocolate cookie topped with powdered sugar, Parikh said.
“Spinach Falafel is a non-traditional take on a falafel,” Parikh wrote in an email to The Heights. “Inspired off an ultralight creamy hummus and made with chickpea flour with all the typical falafel flavors, [it is] served on a fresh-made yufka bread, with seasonal pickled vegetables, beet tzatziki, dressed arugula, and a tahini sauce.”
The morning bun was one of Kilpatrick’s first recipes for Sofra, according to Parikh. The buttery pull-apart bun has elements of a classic cinnamon-saturated monkey bread, but is different from the typical breakfast bun with its orange blossom glaze. The creative incorporation of cardamom and orange blossom water make it an irresistible treat. Sofra usually sells out of this fan favorite every weekend, Parikh said.
Despite its long lines, Sofra is worth the sometimes hour-long wait. As if its innovative and delicious menu is not enough to tempt customers, Sofra creates a warm and welcoming environment that reflects the meaning of the name.
The name Sofra means a picnic, a special table preparation of food, or a small square kilim rug for eating. While traveling in Turkey, Sortun and Kilpatrick asked locals what the word “Sofra” meant to them and settled on that as the name for their restaurant after seeing the smiles the word generated, according to Sofra’s website.
Sofra is a feeling as much as a place and it is an evolving and inviting gesture of hospitality, Parikh said. Upon stepping into the small interior space, customers are greeted with cheery employees, all wearing masks, bustling around to bring people their food as quickly as possible. The smell of fresh baked goods mingles with Middle Eastern spices and wafts through the air.
“Sofra is about hospitality, from when you walk in and are greeted by our staff and order your food or beverage,” Parikh wrote in an email to The Heights. “Our unique takes on classic dishes sets us apart from others, but we pride ourselves as being part of the community and that is important.”
Right as customers enter the restaurant, front and center at the counter is a mouthwatering display of baked goods that reflect Sofra’s innovative take on baking. While ordering their meals and treats at the counter, customers can catch a glimpse of the kitchen in the background. Watching the bustling kitchen while staring at the display of finished treats gives the customer a more holistic view of the bakery, bringing everything, from the creation to the final presentation of the dishes and treats, full circle.
“Everything that we create we want to put our best foot forward and we want to make sure that whoever is enjoying it, whether it be on our outdoor patio, at their own home, in a local park, they feel that we are there with them,” Parikh said.
A small grocery-like retail space to the left of the counter sells a variety of hummuses, dishes to take home and heat up, and a variety of wine and spices for customers to incorporate into their own cooking. Sofra sells ingredients which are both sourced locally and globally, according to Parikh, and is committed to supporting local and international food artisans and sustainable agriculture, according to its website.
“At Sofra, we try to capture the world’s finest ingredients in our dishes,” the Sofra website reads. “We search high and low for outstanding food artisans with delicious, healthy, and interesting products, which we use in our dishes; and which we offer to you through our specialty in-store marketplace. We cultivate personal relationships with many of our food purveyors, and we consider them part of the Sofra family.”
This attention to detail is not something lost on customers. Tony Troppito, one customer who has been a regular since Sofra’s first opening 13 years ago, said this is one of the reasons why he chooses to come back. Troppito and his family knew Sortun prior to the opening of Sofra, and frequented her other Turkish and Middle Eastern inspired restaurant, Oleana.
“The ingredients are very good and the flavors are really a lot of fun,” Tony Troppito said. “The various different spices they use [are good], so I have stocked up on a lot of their spices so I can use them at home. So, it’s really a combination of really good ingredients and very nice presentation.”
Whenever customer Logan Troppito eats at Sofra, she said she feels like she is eating food from around the world. Tony’s favorite dish is the sausage pita while Logan’s is the chicken biryani.
“[Sortun] actually travels a fair amount during the year to get inspiration for new dishes, I think she goes to Turkey and other places in the Middle East too,” Logan said. “It’s kind of fun to be able to walk in and taste the flavor from around the world.”
While Sofra values its customers’ dine-in experience, its transparency and retail of ingredients encourages its customers to also experiment with cooking. Prior to the pandemic, Sofra additionally offered cooking classes for its customers, featuring a taste test at the end, and a wine pairing, according to its website.
The pandemic created challenges for Sofra. Like many other restaurants, Sofra closed its doors at the outset of the pandemic, but gradually shifted to takeout only for several months. In its own innovative way, Sofra gradually expanded its services with a walk-up window where people would place their orders either online or at the window to pick up their food. Sofra did not start allowing customers back in-person ordering and outdoor deck dining until this summer, Parikh said.
“We are very lucky, we have a neighborhood that supports us and have been patient with us as we build back from the pandemic,” Parikh wrote in an email to The Heights. “We did not let guests back into our cafe until this past July, and we still have not reintroduced indoor dining. Through it all, our guests have been warm, kind, and understanding through and through. One day we will get back to a version of pre-pandemic Sofra.”
Since their time at Sofra both Sortun and Kilpatrick have received a myriad of awards for their cooking. Kilpatrick was voted Best Pastry Chef by Boston magazine in 2002, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011, and Sortun, who is described as one of America’s “most creative fusion practitioners,” was a James Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Chef in 2015, 2016, and 2017, according to the restaurant’s website.
Making The New York Times Restaurant List adds on to this lengthy list of achievements.
“We are thrilled to be included in such a powerful and dynamic list,” Parikh wrote in an email statement. “With the way things have gone this past year and a half, and what the restaurant industry as a whole has experienced, we can only be extremely proud of the restaurant, the staff, and thankful to our guests.”
Overall, the Sofra experience strikes the perfect balance of a homey, welcoming atmosphere with a worldly variety of dishes and baked goods. The restaurant provides an inviting atmosphere with innovative dishes that will satiate both the adventurous eater, while also offering classics with a subtle twist for those that might be more cautious. The unique combinations of flavors and innovative Middle Eastern twists on classics, like the morning bun, make Sofra’s dishes like no other.
“What makes Sofra so special is the people and warmth and the service,” Parikh said. “They really are a guest-facing restaurant and they want to make sure that every person that comes in experiences Sofra. … The chefs, the owners, they all put their heart and soul into everything, and I think it really shows in the final product.”
Featured Image by Maggie Leahy / Heights Editor