The first thing you notice when walking into Common Table is the 20-foot-long black walnut table, which runs the length of the new non-profit café on Oregon Avenue. The restaurant, which occupies the former Cork location, has been open for just over a month. Yet, with minimal promotion, save a few articles (we wrote about the enterprise back in August) and some Facebook activity, the café has been packed for both lunch and dinner nearly every day of the week.
If you've heard about the café, you know that it's much more than a restaurant. Run by Zach Hancock, a young, charismatic former schoolteacher and ordained Presbyterian minister, Bob Pearson, a member of the First Presbyterian Church who has cultivated this idea for the past half a decade, a volunteer coordinator and a mostly volunteer-driven staff, it's structured slightly different than you run-of-the-mill café. Proceeds benefit those who can't afford to eat at Common Table by funding $10 coupons that are donated to folks in need throughout the community.
It's not hard to see why several diners I talked to said that Common Table feels more welcoming than many other area restaurants. It definitely feels more intentional. The staff know why they're there. The volunteers sure do. And the patrons are catching on, faster than anyone expected.
I visited the café last week for both lunch and dinner. During breakfast and lunch, Common Table is more of a traditional café. I was greeted at the door by an impossibly friendly volunteer, who welcomed me in to the restaurant like I was an old friend she was pleasantly surprised to see. Other staff, paid or otherwise, buzzed around the room - busy, but not with the usual stress that accompanies a packed dining room filled with hungry patrons.
I decided to sit by the Common Table bookshelf, which is filled with books, magazines and publications on art, music, philosophy and social issues. I was handed the menu, which featured around a dozen thoughtful dishes including scrambled eggs ($7), quiche ($8), brown rice stir fry ($9) and a BLT with nitrate-free bacon ($8). Judging from nearby diners, portions were generous and served with a big helping of either fruit, salad or bean cakes.
I ordered the chicken, apple and hazelnut salad for $6. The salad was huge and filled with fresh field greens, grape tomatoes, grilled chicken, apples, grapes and whole hazelnuts, tossed with the perfect amount of a tart balsamic vinaigrette. I have been looking for a salad like this and to find it for only $6 at Common Table made my day.
The service, admittedly, was a bit slow, but no one seemed to mind or be in a rush. It took about 15 minutes to get my salad, but I had found a book about Charles Bukowski and was happy to wait. Nearby sat college professors, retirees, what looked to be a couple of business lunches and a family having a leisurely lunch.
When I returned to Common Table for dinner, I decided to sit at the walnut table. I sat between a two people I had never met and was handed a menu of simple bar fare - sandwiches, pizzettes and the soup of the day, all for less than $10. I ordered the roasted garlic, cherry tomato and squash pizzette ($5) and the open-faced steak sandwich ($9). Both were quite good. The pizzette was huge for the price and the steak sandwich was cooked perfectly. The thick slices of sautéed beef were topped with a generous amount of melted Gruyere and onions and served with a delicious side salad.
I arrived just as the room reached capacity - the night was the first in a series of "story" evenings, during which people are invited to tell their story to the dining room. That night was to feature the Common Table story as well as a story from one of the volunteers. The talks were powerful, inspiring and engendered discussion. After the stories, tables started or continued conversations with volunteers and staff. I met multiple people, from retired First Presbyterian Church members to twenty-somethings who had heard about Common Table from Facebook.
If I were judging Common Table based on food alone, I'd say that while the restaurant is still in its beginning stages, the fresh ingredients, price and preparation are worth the visit. But Common Table can't be judged on merely the food. I really hope that every single person in this community walks through Common Table's doors. Because Common Table is truly a restaurant that needs a community behind it - to volunteer, to eat, and to share ideas - to be successful. And with every meal purchased, the community benefits. How's that for karma?