The feast is both edible and aural at Café in the Park.
Café in the Park is a beautiful example of truth in advertising. It’s a café — and it’s smack dab in the middle of a park. (Payne Park, to be precise.) Simone Steiff is its owner, chef, manager and booking agent. She launched the venue in 2014 and she’s been cooking ever since. In more ways than one.
Every Friday night, the café serves up an audible feast. Steiff’s eclectic bands do far more than create a background soundtrack. “Great music brings people together,” she says. “It’s our way of creating community.”
Music on the Menu
The café’s hard-working musicians include Hymn For Her (the category-defying duo of Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing); Rebekah Pulley (a heartbreaking, soul-shaking singer/songwriter); Passerine (a blues inflected, five-piece, string band); and Renesito, the nimble-fingered Cuban guitarist.
Steiff launched the concert series about two years ago. Her café was evolving into a happening hangout. The only thing missing was music. She fixed that as soon as possible.
How does she find her rainbow of performers?
According to Steiff, it’s a constant sifting process.
“I do a ton of research—both on regional bands, and bands from around the nation touring through South Florida,” she says. “Musicians give us referrals—customers too! They’ll come up to us, and say ‘This band would be a great fit for you.’”
“Great fit” doesn’t mean a cookie-cutter uniformity. Steiff’s looking for originality and talent — period. She knows great music comes in many flavors. Great musicians of all varieties can find a stage at her café.
“I love them all,” she says. “There’s such a range of genres here; no two bands sound alike.”
A Day in the Life
No two days are the same, either. But they follow a typical groove. Morning dawns with food planning, and then segues to food prep and the lunch rush. If it’s a Friday, the week’s band sets up in the late afternoon, plays its heart out, and packs up the gear. When the working day is done, the sun is long gone.
On May 25, the sun is occasionally peeping out of a cloudy, late Friday afternoon sky. There’s a tropical disturbance brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Just in time to put a damper on the holiday weekend. But there’s still a good chance raindrops might not be falling on the heads of tonight’s performers, Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing of the aforementioned Hymn for Her.
They’ve parked their van on the sidewalk. For now, they’re setting up merchandise tables. Amps and other electrical equipment will wait until the last possible minute in case the raindrops fall. (Today, it’s definitely looking like an indoor performance.)
Indifferent to the storm warnings, kids are happily playing in the Technicolor plastic maze of the nearby playground. A jogger barely avoids a Frisbee-catching dog.
The café itself is a scone’s throw away from the swings and slides. (Simone leases the building. The city owns it.) It’s a playful, modernist structure of concrete, brick and glass. Think panoramic windows full of green and blue skies. Usually.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Tonight’s rock in the park is a labor of love for Steiff and her team. Aside from a few crabapples, it is for the neighbors, too. The park (until fairly recently, a trailer park) borders a mid-century subdivision — and one of Sarasota’s few surviving brick streets.
According to Steiff, the neighbors see the park as their park. And her café is their café.
“Our part of downtown Sarasota is definitely blossoming,” she says. “We get a real mix of ages and backgrounds here. The young families love to let their kids run around — or jog themselves. The retired residents take it easy, but they still get out and seize the day.”
Today, that’s exactly what’s happening. And the tables are already filling up with diners of all descriptions. Old, young, wealthy … or not. (Not to mention a Westie.)
“The diversity here blows my mind,” Steiff says. “I love the fact we’re not locked into any particular music genre or patron. Sameness is boring! I’m happy to say, it’s never boring around here.”