The photograph on Community Food and Juice's Web site inspires a double take. It looks like a picture of the restaurant a century ago, with young men leaning against the counter next to a fresh pie. The photo, of course, is just of some general store, not the two-month-old restaurant, but the likeness is interesting. In its brief existence to date, Community has integrated itself into the neighborhood — to be sure, a restaurant-hungry neighborhood, centered around Columbia — so smoothly that one can almost believe it's been there for years.
The restaurant hires staff from the community, as the name hints, which gives a homegrown mood to the loud, bustling dining room; but also it fills a void in the community, or several different ones. The roster of comforting, largely organic American food resembles that served at the owners' downtown outpost, the Clinton Street Baking Company. But while that restaurant, in a more culinarily glutted area, is often empty at dinnertime, Community never is. Long lines also form at brunch and later for cocktails at the bar, although the juice counter, prominent though it is in the establishment's title, never seems to have a crowd.
The eatables span a broad enough range to please most appetites. A $13 hamburger is among the tastiest and most popular dinner options. Made from grass-fed beef on a house-made bun, it's plump and exceedingly moist, its deep beefy richness augmented with sweet browned onions and tangy cheese. There's also a grass-fed steak du jour ($27) and a free-range chicken roasted whole for two ($29).
The list veers deeper into the comfort zone with treats like brown-butter-drenched ravioli ($16) filled with pumpkin and a lush pot pie ($16) filled with root vegetables that have absorbed the liquid they were cooked in, leaving a deliciously uncomplicated filling under a toasty, buttery, firm crust. But it dabbles in other genres too: There are Chinese scallion pancakes with black vinegar ($5), limpid and full-flavored matzoh ball soup ($6), and a thin-crust pizza ($11) topped with fontina and wild mushrooms and cooked on the grill.
Community has its sloppinesses, but considering how busy it is, its youth, and the youth of its staff, not too many. My pizza's dough was cooked to a chew rather than a proper crisp; I might have sent it back for further grilling if two young, overextended waiters hadn't almost come to blows in front of me just then. The four pieces of fried chicken with a flaky, light rice-flour batter ($17) were handsomely presented, but both the meat and its coating lacked flavor, which a spicy honey dipping sauce helped but little. I extended the benefit of the doubt to "buffalo tofu" ($8), a less-than-appealing-sounding pastiche of buffalo wings that I've seen done well elsewhere as an appeasement to neglected vegetarians. But Community's version is a stack of floppy, bland tofu logs crusted with tempura-like batter and barely flavored with drizzles of hot sauce and a blue-cheese dressing.
Customers who put up with the inevitable wait for brunch are rewarded with treats, including a superb, rich but moderate eggs Benedict ($14). Thick brioche French toast ($12) and puffy blueberry pancakes ($11) both come with maple butter, a nice solution to the eater's syrup-or-butter question.
True to its many-hats philosophy, the restaurant also offers a generous selection of American beers, on tap and poured into appealingly super-chilled pint glasses, as well as affordable wines and interesting, fruity cocktails, such as the Whiskey Sour Cherry ($9), made with bourbon, maraschino liqueur, and sour cherry juice. There are also hot cocktails to suit the season: buttered cider ($3.75, or $7.50 with rum) and tequila-spiked coffee ($8).
It's been a long time since I've seen butterscotch pudding on a menu, but humble, home-style Community gives it pride of place, right next to the chocolate pudding (each $6). It's nothing like the salty, thin-tasting My-T-Fine packaged puddings that make up most of my butterscotch experience; this thick, caramelly custard is wonderfully rich without being at all cloying. The rest of the desserts are similarly modest and delicious: a baked apple, a lemon tart, a cookie plate.
For a restaurant that fills such a multiplicity of niches, Community doesn't have the stretched-thin feeling one might expect. If it falls short in a few of its duties, it exceeds expectations in more of them, and the community is clearly glad to have it.
Community Food and Juice (2893 Broadway, between 112th and 113th streets, 212-665-2800).