“It reminds me of Austin, Texas."
“It’s straight out of San Diego.”
“It would be right at home in Boston.”
These are a few of the comments from expats about the San Sebas Café, which opened in mid-December on Mariscal Sucre and Coronel Talbot at the southwest corner of San Sebastian Square. With its warm colors, local art, friendly and efficient staff, great food at good prices, and artesania boutique, San Sebas combines the best of both worlds and is justifiably popular with cuencanos and estadounidenses.
The café is the brainchild of 26-year-old Lindsay Burton, who has worked in the restaurant industry since she was 14 and was recently a part of three different groups that opened restaurants in Texas. “I was born in Hawaii into a traveling family, so I grew up all over the world, including New Zealand, Belize, the Philippines, Japan, Texas, and Oregon. I also spent some time working in Cambodia,” Lindsay says of her unique upbringing.
“Lindsay is much more comfortable outside the U.S. than in it,” adds Bob Burton, Lindsay’s dad.
Bob and Mary Burton, married for 34 years, were real-estate agents in Oregon who got involved in Youth with a Mission, an international volunteer movement currently operating in more than 1,000 locations in 180 countries. They began coming to Ecuador in 2005 to work with young people in south Quito, helping to bring in medical and vision teams; the optometrists and opticians could do 1,500 eye exams and dispense 800 pairs of glasses over a three-day period.
In May 2009, the Burtons discovered Cuenca and began doing vision work in the surrounding towns. “In Santa Isabela, we had a girl with minus-four vision,” Bob recalls. “As soon as we put minus-four glasses on her, she saw her family for the first time. She lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Lindsay followed her parents to Ecuador in 2006. “Since then,” she says, “I’ve spent two to three months every year working outside Quito with a children's organization.” She visited her parents in Cuenca in October 2010. “I was immediately drawn to the small-town feel of this city. I returned to Texas, sold everything, and moved here a month later.”
According to Lindsay, San Sebas Café was inspired by the eclectic coffee-shop scene with which she fell in love while living in Austin. When she moved to Cuenca, she missed having somewhere comfortable to go in order to sit and work or read a book, while enjoying a good cappuccino, sandwich, or North American-style salad. “Also,” she says, “San Sebastian was an inspiration for the café. The tranquility and beauty of the park, along with the chance to have outside seating, is what drew me to this location.”
From idea to opening, the creation of San Sebas took about nine months. “I had my eye on this location for about four months before it was actually available,” Lindsay says. “When this building became available, I jumped on the opportunity immediately.”
The many hurdles Lindsay had to overcome to open San Sebas included permits, contractors, renovations, and visas. “My Spanish is improving now, but in the beginning, my vocabulary was limited, which made it really hard to communicate with contractors and vendors,” Lindsay admits. “I could not have done any of this without the help of my mother, who worked so hard to assist me with everything she could along the way.”
That includes many of the recipes that draw gringos from far and wide to San Sebas for breakfast and lunch, recipes handed down from Mary Butler’s grandmother, then altered for the altitude. Walk into the café any time between 9 a.m. and around 11:30 and you’ll see tables crowded with the specialty vanilla-cinnamon French toast and oatmeal-banana-nut pancakes ($3.75), along with sourdough pancakes and house granola and muesli ($3.50).
San Sebas also serves a variety of three-egg dishes, from the veggie, Mexicano, and Greek scrambles ($4-$4.50) to the create-your-own four-choice omelets ($4.50) and the Big Breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancake, and home fries ($5.50).
For lunch, San Sebas offers BLTs, Greek tacos, Caesar-chicken wraps, spicy-meatball and chicken sandwiches, and the local-favorite black-bean burger with gourmet veggie chips ($4-$5.50). You can also order a variety of salads (Southwest, Greek, chipotle, $4-$5.50), along with daily or weekly specials; a recent week featured four different gourmet Polish hotdogs ($3.50-$4). And, of course, the café serves cappuccinos, mochaccinos, lattes, and espressos ($1.25-$2), plus hot chocolate, fresh juices, and sodas ($1-$1.50) and wine ($3.50), beer ($1.50-$2.50), and mimosas ($2).
Head-waitress Kelly Fox is, perhaps, the most visible gringa at San Sebas; she and Lindsay met while working together at another restaurant in Cuenca. Kelly has lived in Ecuador for more than three years and is married to a cuencano. She’s bilingual and not only provides excellent service, but is also great with helping visitors and new residents find their way around Cuenca.
The Tribu boutique occupies the front room of the café. It, too, is owned by an American, Maureen Fernand, a long-time Spanish teacher and veteran expat. Tribu sells 100%-cotton tie-dyed and batik blouses in the two- and three-times sizes that fit American women. Unique jewelry includes earrings from Colombia made with pumpkin seeds and coffee beans; the necklaces and bracelets use semi-precious stones, alpaca, bamboo, glass, and pottery. Tribu also sells textiles, pipes, and a number of other high-quality crafts.
As for Lindsay, she says, “I absolutely love running San Sebas,” which is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. “We have a great team here and we’re already expanding our staff. It’s a fun job to wake up to every morning. I’m lucky to work with friends and serve and drink coffee with locals and travelers from all over the world.”
Captions, top: San Sebas is located on San Sebastian Square in Cuenca, not Union Square in San Francisco; middle: Lindsay Butler flashes her killer smile behind the counter; bottom : daily specials, fine art, and designer aprons grace a front wall.