Doing good eats

Dining with dignity—for under five smackers!

I'm kind of a snob. And like most snobs (though we don't often admit it), I'm easy to impress. What's more, I'm wowed by luxurious settings, chefs with droppable names, European arrogance, and fabulous ingredients. I know Limoges china from Homer Laughlin, blather about beluga, wax poetic about truffles. I write about restaurants with the snotty tone beloved by urban critics. There's a folder on my hard drive where I keep words like "predictable" and "forgettable" and a raft of synonyms for "mediocre." This is a gentrifying town in an upscale era—snob sells well in a city that supports a caviar store and reportedly has more limousines per capita than LA. Besides, it's easy to be a snob when Seattle Weekly pays the tab. So I don't know why they sent me to the Boomtown Cafe—a joint on a crummy block where the top menu price is $1.75, the wine list nonexistent, and the experience totally devoid of grilled portobellos. Boomtown Cafe

513 Third, 625-2989

breakfast 7-10:30, lunch 11-2

cash, food stamps, barter (15 minutes per food unit) The Boomtown is the first intentionally nonprofit restaurant in the state, not intended to serve urbane Seattle diners but, by god, it can and it does. Yes, the neighborhood is off-putting. The block's dotted with bail-bond companies, beer dives, and scary marble municipal monoliths. It's near the corner of Second and James, notorious for crack dealers, people who live in their shoes and talk out loud to Jesus, and hustlers with not much to hustle. Walking in, the contrast with the mean streets and cold January outside is stunning. The room, which seats 55, is warm and well lit. There's a children's play area just inside the door. A bud vase of pale statice and baby's breath graces each table. It's all fresh paint, natural wood, and no formica—it's homey. As I arrive, the changeover from breakfast (7-11am) to lunch (11am-2pm) has just been made. I order the roasted vegetable lasagna with green salad ($1.75). I'm given a number at the counter by Michelle Webster, a VISTA volunteer who graduated last year from Smith College. Like all restaurants, the Boomtown has more college graduates than your average software start-up. Before the restaurant opened, Michelle put systems in place, and now she sees that they're sustained. Since everybody does everything here, she also buses and wipes tables. I sit down at a four-top with Thomas Johnson, 62, a retiree just finishing his breakfast (the Boomtown Griddle, which features French toast, bacon, potatoes, and fruit salad for $1.25). Johnson, a loquacious man who lives in the Gatewood Hotel down the street, likes the atmosphere, he says, and loves the food—but the prices "are outstanding." His friend, 67-year-old W.C. Hudson, has pushed away his empty breakfast plate (Spanish omelet with salsa, peppers, olives, cheese, served with with sausage and fruit salad, $1.25) and is finishing his coffee. He lives in the nearby St. Charles Hotel and says the two haven't missed a day since the Boomtown opened December 28. "You haven't been able to get a meal around here for less than $5 in years," he said. Caffeine wisdom prevails as our talk ranges from Y2K to gentrification in Pioneer Square. Janelle Rhodes waits tables for 20 hours a week and seems to know everybody. She pitches faux insults and jokes back to the coffee-sipping geezers. "I love it," she says. She's a veteran volunteer and worker at other food operations in the neighborhood like FareStart. She's paid $9 an hour—all tips are donations to the restaurant operation. The old guys say goodbye as my lunch arrives. Johnson tucks all the sugar packets on the table into his pockets "for later." I'm reminded of my wacky old rich grandmother in her 1940s mink wrap, driven from one Southern California Denny's to another in her Seville, never leaving a sugar packet or disposable towelette. This behavior is apparently universal by senior citizens regardless of class or race. I make a middle-aged resolve not to perpetuate it. (I'll probably forget.) I survey lunch with my critic's eye. The lasagna looks great, colorful with tomato sauce, vegetables, and well presented with garlic bread. The salad's a mix of greens and ranch dressing that puts many lunch joints to shame for crispness and amplitude. I can see diners around me with club sandwiches on sourdough, fat with turkey, bacon, lettuce, and tomato; or large soup plates with a minestrone full of veggies, pasta, and garbanzos. The lasagna turns out to be as tasty as it is beautiful—lots of vegetables and cheese, pasta cooked perfectly. Boomtown's associate director Jill Curtis (UW '95) says, "We have a limited menu but we change it weekly." The only problem is the guilt of only paying $1.75 for this lunch. (Later, I generously threw $3.25 more of the Weekly's money into the tip jar). As my dishes are being bused by another VISTA volunteer, Karen Savage (Stanford '99), I chat with executive director Anthony Anderson (Rutgers, Columbia). "The Boomtown is a dream that took six years to come to fruition," he says. Despite his heady title, Anderson is the buck-stops-here guy whether the problem is dealing with a reporter at lunchtime or making sure there's toilet paper in the ladies' room. "Our idea is to provide a setting where anybody can sit down and be given a choice from a menu of hot food and be waited on," he said. "Institutions who feed homeless and other poor people just line them up and hand them something. We serve dignity." There are no handouts at Boomtown—payment can be made with food stamps or work in the restaurant. The Boomtown was founded by a determined crew of homeless advocates and social activists imbued with the nonprofit motive. Michael Campbell, Peter Donahue, and Bob Kubenik pitched the dream, found the location, remodeled. They hustled corporations, foundations, and funders like the United Way, Seattle Foundation, Boeing Employees Community Fund, Associated Grocers, and more. The Cafe seems to be on solid financial and community footing. In the interim they set up a catering service serving 7,000 contract meals a month to other agencies and shelters such as the Wintonia Hotel, Angeline's, and Hammond House. They hired veteran chef and New Jersey native Michael Friedman, who'd paid his dues cooking at dinner houses, country clubs—even as District Kitchen Manager for Starbucks. His professionalism is demonstrated in the taste and presentation of the food. He could be earning three times more in Seattle's steaming service economy. "One of the things I love about this place is that the folks who work here could be earning more elsewhere. They work here because they love it," says Anderson. The clientele includes neighborhood bureaucrats, homeless families, hungry single men, pensioners, food stamp recipients, and people who could pass for attorneys. "We welcome everybody's business," says Anderson. "We ask that you pay more if you can afford more; it's a matter of conscience and people understand." Couching the Boomtown Cafe experience in the terms of a cynical city critic, it's un-forgettable. It's consistent rather than "predictable," as Anderson points out. "We saw a need for not only consistently good food but a consistent place for people to gather, feel safe and not ostracized." If you want to do good by eating well, you must come here at once—and by all means, drop a tenner.

 
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