You can't throw an umbrella in Taipei without hitting a nice hotel, inside of which is bound to be at least one if not three or more quality restaurants that have been recently renovated and offer good food and service. So why go to Sam's Cafe and Lounge at the Holiday Inn East Taipei, just off the Northern Taiwan Second Freeway in Shenkeng, Taipei County?
For one, it's not as far from the city as it may seem: 10 minutes by car in non-rush hour traffic from Taipei 101. Sam's Cafe is near Taipei City Zoo and the new, though often malfunctioning, gondola to Maokong's (貓空) hillside teahouses. The restaurant also makes a good staging point for Shenkeng, which despite being in Taipei County offers a tourist attraction, the famed Old Street (老街) with local specialties like black pork, stinky tofu, mountain-grown tea leaves, and green bamboo shoots. Some of these, stinky tofu most likely excepted, will be incorporated into Sam's menu at a later stage.
More important, Sam's Cafe offers hotel-style meals and ambience for pub-level prices. The extensive a la carte menu features dishes ranging from traditional fish and chips (NT$280) and Rueben sandwiches (NT$190), to prime beef with grilled foie gras and roasted mushrooms in a merlot sauce (NT$350) and rack of lamb (NT$350). And, possibly because the hotel is in a not-so-visible location, Sam's Cafe frequently offers discounts to lure customers. Last month everything was 50 percent off. This month there are package deals combining room rental, a meal at Sam's and a Maokong Gondola tour.
To be sure, there are several disadvantages. Sam's Cafe is nowhere near public transportation and is a NT$200 taxi ride to the nearest MRT station (though there are shuttles for room guests). The buffet does not stack up well against other Taipei hotels in terms of either selection orprice; it's NT$600 for lunch. Standards like salmon and terrine were of good quality, but there wasn't enough variety. And this month's Father's Day promotion, NT$499, merely brings the price down to levels seen at many of the city's myriad all-you-can-eat restaurants, a good deal of which offer much larger buffets.
Address: 265 Beishen Rd, Shenkeng Township, Taipei County
Telephone: (02) 2662 8000
Open: Daily from 9:30am to 11pm
Average meal: NT$600, plus 10 percent service charge
Details: Chinese and English menu; credit cards accepted
The final verdict: Sam's Cafe is recommended, especially for families and maybe a date, if you have a car and want a hotel-quality Western meal after a trip to Maokong, the zoo or Old Street.