PHILADELPHIA — When the check hits the table after a three-course meal at the homey EAT Café, it looks a little unusual. The receipt slip reads: “The total above is only a SUGGESTED price. Please write here the amount you wish to pay.”
The meal is valued at $15, plus $1.20 in tax. Some pay it. Some pay more. And many pay a few dollars, or nothing at all.
“We’ve had some graduate students come that are so grateful to have real food, and maybe they leave a couple of dollars,” said Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University and founder of the restaurant. “Even those who are not paying are not looking at it as a free meal. There’s a dignity to this place.”
EAT, which stands for Everyone at the Table, opened in October as one of about 50 experimental restaurants across the country that are transforming the way people think about food assistance and charity. They feed the needy and the non-needy side by side, giving low-income people the chance to eat a nutritious sit-down meal somewhere other than a soup kitchen.
“I couldn’t stand the idea that you have these gorgeous restaurants with nice food, and there are these families who are struggling who could never tap into that,” said Chilton. “I wanted to make a place where families could come experience some joy.”
At the EAT Café on a recent Friday night, the vibrant green dining room was filling up with guests. A table of gray-haired baby boomers sat across from a table of 20-something students, and the piped-in jazz swirled around the room along with the smell of roasted vegetables. There was chicken potpie and meatloaf on the menu, and bread pudding with crème anglaise for dessert.
When she first learned about the pay-what-you-can concept, “I had never heard of such a thing,” said 87-year-old Calla Cousar, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who joined an advisory panel that Chilton set up to solicit community input. Now, Cousar comes once a week.
As a mentor to local teens, she’s going to start bringing groups of them here for dinner, “so they can eat something other than fast food,” she said. She motioned to the tables, the silverware, the glasses of nicely garnished basil lemonade. “I want to expose them to this.”