Sitting down with Irena Stein, you’d think she had nothing to do with the success of Café Azafran, an eatery tucked so snugly into the northwestern corner of the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus that you may have trouble finding it on directions alone.
Stein, owner and chef, praises everyone: the chemist-turned-baker who creates the muffins; the two espresso bar employees who—like a choreographed dance—serve more than 500 coffee lovers a day, leaving Stein no choice but to simply help with the dishes; the customers who, grateful for the variety and healthiness of the menu, come back day after day.
But don’t let her fool you. Stein, a jewelry designer for nearly two decades before going into catering, is the creative force behind Café Azafran, which in 2004 replaced an institutional cafeteria in the Steven Muller Building, home of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Recruited by John Shields of Gertrude’s—restaurant royalty, as far as Baltimore is concerned—Stein’s success in this space stems from her ability to turn the cafeteria concept on its head.
This is no easy task, of course. While Stein derives much pride from cooking for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency, both housed in the Muller Building, getting customers to transition to this new, unusual cafeteria food was both her biggest challenge and her biggest accomplishment. “I have expanded their palates,” Stein notes proudly.
Needless to say, you won’t find Salisbury steak here. Instead, you’ll find soups, salads and sandwiches—all under $10—inspired by international cuisine and composed of seasonal, all-natural and, when possible, local ingredients.
I’ve never had a “miss” here; on my most recent trip, the goat cheese and beet salad was a near-reincarnation of a goat cheese and beet sandwich I had here years ago and still think about sometime. Azafran serves Novo coffee, and it's the only place I’ve seen carrying the brand.
Bottom line is: If you’re a Hubble Telescope scientist, you probably already know and love Azafran. But, if you’ve never had the occasion to wander onto Homewood campus for lunch, you should. You won’t be disappointed.
3700 San Martin Drive
Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus – Wyman Park side.
International, natural lunch.
If you don’t work on the campus, Café Azafran is pretty tough to get to; it’s best accessed by foot. Closest parking (metered) is behind the ROTC Building off of San Martin Drive.
Café Azafran has managed to maintain a cafeteria-like efficiency despite serving anti-cafeteria food. If you want, you can grab lunch in under a half hour…
…but why would you want to, with that gorgeous view of Wyman Park? Go if you enjoy a serene landscape with your chili con carne.
Don't go if:
You want breakfast. Café Azafran recently retired its hot breakfast menu in favor of pre-cooked pastries and empanadas. Also, don’t go if you just want coffee – that’s what Alkimia is for. Located in Gilman Hall, Stein opened this outpost in August, serving coffee, sweets, and cold salads/sandwiches.