“Cafe” is one of those words that has been stretched far beyond its original meaning. Traditionally thought of as a place for coffee, snacks, and light meals, often with outdoor seating along a tree-lined boulevard, a cafe now can be just about any type of restaurant. Such is the case with the 5th Avenue Cafe in Midtown Phoenix. It’s a place with a menu that leans heavily on classic diner fare with some recent additions of Mexican food. If there’s anything particularly cafe-like about it, it’s the jazz playing on the speakers and the musical theme of the decor.

chili and side salad

The 5th Avenue Cafe is found at the corner of Thomas Road and, unsurprisingly, Fifth Avenue. That puts it about a third of a mile west of the Thomas/Central light rail station. Although both Fifth and Third Avenues have bike lanes, the strip mall that houses the 5th Avenue Cafe and several other restaurants hasn’t a single bike rack to its name.That’s an unfortunate oversight, especially in light of a location right across from health-oriented St. Joseph’s Hospital, but customers who pedal to the restaurant can overcome it by locking against sign posts outside.

pot roast sandwich with fries

The jazz theme of the decor appears in the form of guitars and horns on the walls. The diner part of the look is seen more in the advertisements for local businesses found under glass covers at each table. There’s also a long counter along the side in classic diner style. A small side patio goes largely unused. The type of music heard in the restaurant can most readily be described as “cafe jazz,” a genre of soothing sounds not as slick as the smooth jazz played in dental offices but not as syncopated as the improvisational jazz found at places like the Nash.

roasted turkey sandwich and fruit

Customers seat themselves and are quickly greeted by an amiable staff. The restaurant’s approach and theme are largely inherited from prior owners, but the current team, which is English-Spanish bilingual, has largely kept the diner cuisine intact while adding a few of its own touches such as pozole on weekends. The result is a mix of classic American breakfast and lunch favorites along with a few Mexican and Southwestern touches. A whiteboard over the counter displays specials, many of them long-lasting, that augment the menu offered every day.

short stack of pancakes and sausage patties

Breakfast favorites include classic carbohydrates such as pancakes, waffles, and French toast. All three are offered in full meals with eggs, a serving of bacon or sausage patties or links, and a side like hash browns or fruit. There is also an option for short stacks of more diminutive dimensions. The preparations aren’t fancy, but they’re dependable renditions of familiar favorites. Biscuits and gravy, steak and eggs, chilaquiles, and half a dozen types of omelets add to the hearty morning meals while a bowl of oatmeal provides an opportunity for a lighter option.

chicken noodle soup

Breakfast segues seamlessly into lunch because both menus are offered during the restaurant’s hour of service, which focus on the early half of the day from 7:30 AM to 1:30 PM. More midday-oriented options include burgers, a patty melt, and a variety of hot and cold sandwiches. A pot roast sandwich delivers mixed results with exceedingly tender meat hiding behind a bland, brown sauce. A roasted turkey melt is more successful with melted Swiss and leaves of fresh spinach intermingling with the sliced poultry. Toasted sourdough is the bread to choose here.

patty melt and onion rings

Sandwiches and burgers include a choice of sides including onion rings, fruit, coleslaw, sweet potato fries, and regular fries. Although the last item was oversalted when sampled, it is featured in seemingly perpetual specials of fish and chips, shrimp and chips, and catfish with fries and slaw. A heavy hand with the salt shaker is also a factor in the chicken noodle soup, which features a mound of mushy noodles with minimal meat and nary a vegetable. It’s comforting in the vein of Campbell’s, but it’s not hard to imagine something better is possible.

chicken fajitas

The chili is a better showcase of the kitchen’s output. It’s prepared in a classic diner style with ground beef, dark beans, and mild seasoning. For a little more spice, it’s worth venturing into the Mexican-influenced sections of the menu, which have grown since the change to the current ownership. Enchiladas with suiza or mole sauce are both satisfying with the latter providing a bit of spice lurking behind its initial note of sweetness. Fajitas with beef or chicken are also a strong choice with abundant peppers and onions, corn tortillas, and salsa verde alongside the meat.

mole enchiladas and rice

For dessert, look at the specials board for a selection of baked goods available that day. Recent offerings have included strawberry cheesecake and banana nut bread, as well as Mexican-influenced sweets such as tres leches cake and churros with ice cream. A few items listed there, like strawberry crepes, are meals in themselves for those who prefer a more sweet type of breakfast food. Drinks here are limited to non-alcoholic choices such as juices, soda, and iced tea. The cafe has not yet joined the trend of boozy brunches and breakfast cocktails.

strawberry cheesecake

While the restaurant has undergone some recent updates, it still has a bit of a patina, including signs on the outside listing dishes like pasta, which is not currently on the menu, and tacos, which are offered only as an occasional special. The jazz theme is being maintained with occasional live performances, as well as the everyday background music. 5th Avenue Cafe seems in a state of gradual transition but continues to support Midtown and the Willo historic district in the way that a diner, cafe, or whatever term one uses should serve a neighborhood.

501 W. Thomas Rd., Phoenix AZ 85013