If you can tell a lot about a society from its food, – which I believe you can – you can also tell a lot about a community from its restaurants. I was reminded of this fact the past week when Chris attended a workshop on opening a restaurant. Although he’s not leaving his current job, he may run his own place in the future and it was a good professional development opportunity. One of the panels at the event was building community around a restaurant, which was rightly touted as one of the most important things a local place can do for itself. I’d argue it’s also one of the most important things that a restaurant can do for its community as well.
Growing up, I had few clear examples of community restaurants or bars. We had a couple of Italian restaurants that sponsored every sports team in town and were locally owned, so that counted for something. But they never recognized you or knew your favorite meal. We have and still have a great sandwich/country store place that makes amazing cider donuts, but they closed for the winter. In fact, the one restaurant that we went back to again and again was – Friendlys. The most generic sit-down restaurant in the history of food-serving establishments. Nonetheless, there wasn’t a lot else in town, so quite often for dinner and after every play or concert, that’s where we ended up. Even when new restaurants opened, almost all of them were franchises, convinced (and probably right in that assumption) that identical menus and atmospheres were what suburban residents wanted. They perfectly reflected the white-bread generic feeling of our town.
On the other hand, I knew not every city had to be this way. My mom told me stories of growing up in New Jersey, where she spent almost every afternoon with her grandparents. And almost every afternoon, her grandparents went to the neighborhood bar and took my mom and sister along. They would eat weird bar food like pickled eggs while my grandparents drank beer and hung out with their friends. Unlike the bars of my hometown, that seemed weirdly skeezy, my mom’s descriptions made it clear that it was a family place.
When I moved to Ithaca for college, I first started experiencing places that shaped the community around them as much as they were shaped by it. Ithaca is the home of Moosewood, one of the most well-known and earliest vegetarian restaurants in the country. While Moosewood’s co-op based structure and meat-free menu reflects Ithaca’s hippie spirit, it has also helped the town move forward over time. Evolving through the years, the restaurant demonstrates how both the community and vegetarian food don’t have to be stuck in the 60s.
Moving to Oxford for graduate school, I gained an even greater sense of what specific actions restaurants could carry out to build that community. On one hand, was the restaurant where Chris worked, which did little to connect with the larger community. They had their regulars, but were mostly dependent on tourists and acted that way. In contrast, the wonderful Vaults and Gardens had hugely devoted fans for good reason. When the “local food” scene was just going mainstream, they had been using produce from local farms for years, which is significantly harder in the UK than much of the U.S. Even though I rarely ate there due to a general lack of funds (otherwise known as “being a grad student”), they were more than willing to help me when I asked for charity sponsorship. Working as a student representative for the social justice charity Christian Aid, I put on two events to raise money and awareness for climate change – a poetry slam and bike ride. For the poetry slam, they lent me their space after-hours at no charge. For the bike ride, they donated me beautiful salads for the closing picnic. I’ve asked a lot of businesses for free stuff for charity and none have been so willing to work to meet my needs. (Although some have been even more generous – thank you Revolution Cycles for your Climate Ride donation!)
Moving to the D.C. area, I saw a variety of ways restaurants can productively interact with the world around them. Busboys and Poets, where Chris’s workshop was held, actively participates in the community, hosting a variety of events such as talks and book signings. Beyond the immediate community, they also open up the conversation to the larger world with their activist bookstore and Fair Trade shop. In Bethesda, the good folks at the greasy spoon Tastee Diner recognize us and have remained a constant institution as everything else around them has changed. In Rockville, Carmen’s Italian Ice has its own funky personality with discounts to celebrate the owners’ son’s birthday and Pho 75 (along with many other authentic Asian restaurants) reflects our multicultural population.
In fact, the shifting makeup of restaurants in certain areas has changed entire neighborhoods in D.C. The Atlas District along H St. is rapidly gentrifying in large part because of the trendy restaurants and bars that have popped up. While the issue of gentrification is highly contentious, there’s no question that expanding the variety of food choices beyond the ubiquitous fish fry/pizza/sub/fried chicken take-out places (often all in one restaurant) is good. On the other hand, it would be even better if more of the new restaurants took the needs, tastes, and income levels of the long-time residents into account, not just those of their new young neighbors. I honestly believe it’s possible to find that balance – Rays the Steaks at East River in Anacostia seems to be handling it well.
Beyond individual restaurants attempting to reach out to the neighborhood, there are also societal ways we can encourage this community-building. In D.C., Think Local First is a great organization that brings together businesses from across the area to collaborate, cross-promote, and share resources. Rockville has Rockville Rewards, a card that provides holders with discounts at a number of local establishments. In addition to encouraging people to shop at area businesses, the fee for the card goes to local charities, making it a real win-win. Local currencies, like Ithaca Hours and D.C.’s homegrown Potomac (established by Ecolocity DC!), physically prevent money from going to chain restaurants and leaving the area. The national 3/50 Project campaign promotes people spending $50 a month at three local, independent businesses.
So the next time you’re looking for somewhere to eat out, check out that locally-owned place. The one that has character, connects with the neighborhoods around it, and maybe even buys from local producers. I know that’s difficult in a lot of places, but the more we support them, the more we’ll have. After all, you get what you pay for.
Do you have a favorite neighborhood restaurant that’s a local institution or bound to become one?