A few days ago, I went out to dinner with two friends that were in town for the weekend. As we sat enjoying a meal of assorted small plates amidst the colorful décor of Sarma, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Somerville, we discussed the ability of a food space to encourage a certain type of conversation within its walls. My roommates and I often discuss the use of space within our own home as we seek to bring others in, but it was interesting to broaden the conversation to the restaurant space as well.
“I sometimes consider dropping academia and opening a café of my own, not just a place to serve coffee and snacks, but a place that functions as a unique, purposeful space,” mused Jenny, a friend that I'd just met.
We analyzed the space we presently inhabited, attempting to pinpoint what it was that made the experience about more than simply the food. From the lighting to the layout, the openness of the physical space encouraged open conversation. Like each component of the physical sphere, the people within the space served a certain function and knew how to carry out their role. From the servers, who engaged customers in hopes of educating them about a new style of food or region of wine, to the bussers, who knew how to clear a table without interrupting the flow of conversation, to the customers that chose to eat a style of meal that required sharing of plates, every component of the restaurant inspired diners to come in and partake in a memorable meal.
Our memories of that meal will encompass each of these components – we will remember that we discussed Jenny’s research while sipping on a 2012 Thymiopoulos red from Macedonia; that as we ate grilled broccoli with sweet potato babaghanoush and peanut dukkah, we talked about how our varying experiences in Southern or rural churches encouraged us to think about feminist theology. We will remember that our server moved to Boston from Providence because she wanted to work for Chef Cassie, and that champagne granita is spectacular with pomegranate seeds. We will taste the rooibos infused sticky toffee pudding while envisioning the 200-year-old doors from Turkey, and we will wish that we could decorate our own homes with hanging lanterns from Lebanon.
With increasing interest in gastronomy across America, I hope that more and more restaurants will seek to create spaces that function as an arbiter of creative food and engaging conversation, that continually challenge their patrons to think of the meal as an embodied experience, a time to learn about food, about culture, about each dining companion.