catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 8 :: 2007.04.20 — 2007.05.04


A good restaurant

One of the acts of a recent episode of NPR’s This American Life
was the story of a man who worked for a company that bought out lottery
winnings for a lower rate when winners got into financial
trouble.  He said a huge percentage of lottery winners sink their
money into a restaurant.  Unfortunately, these restaurants often
fail as the pipe dreams of the suddenly rich.  But how many of us
have not imagined, to some degree, the restaurant we would create if we
had the money?  I think this imagining forms part of the criteria
we use when we consciously or subconsciously determine whether a
restaurant is ‘good’ or not.

Putting this issue together along with the restaurant dreaming that
has surrounded me for the past year has caused me to think a lot about
what makes a good restaurant in my perception.  And a long road
trip (of the kind that has me writing from Florida right now) always
intensifies these questions as the per diem restaurant count soars
above that of ‘normal’ life and I have hundreds of miles to consider
how we might avoid chain restaurants at the next mealtime.  On the
one end of the evaluation spectrum, I experience guilt and shame that
hardly allows me to enjoy the cookie cutter entrée in the cookie cutter
atmosphere, served by employees mostly motivated by need, not
pride.  On the other end is the intoxicated sensation of enjoying
amazing food in a unique environment, with my dollars directly
supporting the culinary and spatial vision of someone I could easily
meet if I wanted to.

Since I woke up this morning completing the sentence, “A good
restaurant is…”, I’ll take that cue, summon my memories of meals
well-served and lay out some of my perceptions of an ideal restaurant.

A good restaurant is rooted in a neighborhood.  This
quality takes many forms and I can think of dozens of examples. 
Possibly the two most ‘hyper-rooted’ restaurants I’ve ever known are Marie Catrib’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and The Angry Trout
in Grand Marais, Minnesota.  Marie’s offers fresh, local, organic
produce whenever possible and has a share in a local Community
Supported Agriculture program to help make that happen.  The
restaurant is located on a bus line in a walkable part of town in a
certified green building with dual flush toilets, preferred parking for
low-impact vehicles, a living roof—all features that express care for
the neighborhood’s environmental quality.  The Angry Trout serves
unique dishes inspired by the local cuisine: fish from Lake Superior,
wild rice, maple syrup.  In addition, nearly everything you’ll
touch in a visit has a local artisan behind it.  The front door
was carved by a local woodworker, the cloth napkins (undersized to save
on laundry resources) were stitched by a local seamstress, the dishes
created by a local potter.

In addition, such restaurants are almost always owned by someone who
is literally present if not in the restaurant, then in the
community.  Most of these owners put in long, long hours
themselves, but still have time to chat with customers and convey their
passion for their work to both regulars and visitors.

A good restaurant tells a story.  R. Stanley’s
in Kalamazoo, Michigan has a delectable soul food menu and a thick,
elegant atmosphere inspired by the owner’s African American heritage
and time as a jazz musician in the south.  Salaam on the north
side of Chicago is run by Middle Eastern immigrants who transplanted
their culinary culture to support themselves in a new place.  The
sweet, strong coffee often offered to regulars as a complimentary
gesture of gratitude says more than learned English words could about a
desire for joy and sustainability.  The menu at Marie Catrib’s
reflects a passion for Middle Eastern cuisine as well as Scandinavian
roots, while the work of local artists adorns the walls.  In spite
of my aversion, I don’t believe chain restaurants are inherently evil
or beyond doing anything right, but I am suspicious of the ability to
box up and reproduce an experience that gets further removed from the
story of its origins every time it pops up in a new city—usually on a
sprawling strip with other chains.  People of faith in particular
live counter to this trend as they repeat and claim certain stories
generation after generation.  There is a virtue in familiarity and
if we believe our faith to be comprehensive, we should probably be
suspicious about packaged commercial experiences for many of the same
reasons we are suspicious of conveniently packaged faith.

A good restaurant becomes a part of many stories.  Main
Street Café in Three Rivers, Michigan, is doing something right to be a
daily gathering place for people of all ages each morning—for a full
breakfast, coffee, or something in between.  Sanfratello’s
in Glenwood, Illinois was offering something just that much more
special than other local pizza joints that it could become the place my
family headed for the rare treat of ‘going out to eat’.  In high
school, Kathy’s was the weekly breakfast joint—a small downtown café
where Johnny did all of the cooking on an open grill and the waitresses
knew from week to week what each of us would order.  Mezze
in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a perfect setting for a birthday
celebration I’ll hold onto in my mental scrapbook.  Restaurants
become the settings for the exceptional—engagements, catching up on the
lives of long lost friends, anniversary dinners—as well as the rather
ordinary—morning coffee, Saturday breakfasts, a quick lunch.  In
doing so, they go beyond the perfunctory provision of calories and
nutrients to nourish their patrons and communities in less tangible
ways—ways of the Spirit, who thankfully is not above communicating
through the delight of taste buds and the satisfaction of a full

Fortunately, restaurateurs find thousands of ways to create
establishments that are ‘good’ in vastly different ways—a reflection of
the incredible diversity that thrives on this planet.  Where the
hole-in-the-wall authentic Mexican restaurant with piped-in polka
fulfills one kind of desire, the upscale tapas restaurant with live
tango dancing fills another.  But we can also sense in the sights,
smells, sounds, textures and tastes the common elements that tie these
good places together: a foundation of joy, community, quality,
rootedness.  If my husband and I are not lucky on our way home
from Florida, we’ll have more opportunities to contemplate commodified
culture from the inside.  However, I hope we will be fortunate
enough to discover one of those places
that we’ve never visited before, but somehow feels familiar, a place
that gives the sensation of being in on a big, wonderful, delicious

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