When I was little, I read a series of books that had been by mother’s; they were about a sweet but determined, motherless little girl named Maida, and how she and her wealthy and generous father gathered up a rag-tag bunch of children (who she met while running her Little Shop in the first book), and created various enviable settings for them including their own little house, school and camp. I was all over these books, and loved the descriptions particularly of the little house with its curtains, window seats, library and other cozy appointments. Everything sounded extra good, from eating an apple to darning socks, although I had no idea what darning actually was. Broken spirits were mended lame legs were healed, and all of the world’s injustices could be set right by sleeping in a comfortable bed and getting a good education.
I have my own (big) house, and I hate camping, but I do sometimes fantasize about my version of “Maida’s Little Shop,” which would be my own “little” restaurant. I think about it often, from the menu to how the room would look. I am not a professional chef, I know nothing about running a restaurant, and I am aware that most of them fail in the first year after they open, but in my fantasies, none of those things matter in the least.
One thing I have realized is that, while I like to eat complex, clever dishes when I dine out, they are not what I actually like to feed people. If I had a restaurant, it would be in the town I live in, which houses a major university. I would like to cook and serve food that tastes comforting, unpretentious, and like home without falling into the burgers/burritos/gyros/pizza category that dominates our city. I’d like to offer sandwiches for lunch: grilled cheese, tuna salad, peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and honey, egg salad, turkey, cheese and avocado, etc.. The sandwiches would be on a choice of homemade breads including white, wheat, sourdough, with optional fresh tomatoes, lettuces and sprouts. When there aren’t any good tomatoes here, I wouldn’t have them on the menu. I’d like to serve soups, too, homemade cream of tomato and chicken noodle, with a choice of Saltine crackers, Goldfish crackers or homemade croutons to put in the soup. For dessert, there would be homemade cookies and milk. Maybe there would be a daily special, like chicken pot pie in cold weather, a chicken salad plate with fresh fruit in summer, or a quiche with a beautiful little salad. Nothing fancy, just the kind of lunch you might make for yourself at home, only lovingly prepared and presented.
For dinner, I have a list of items I’d like to offer. I’m thinking of things I make well, that create feelings of comfort and well-being. Although I am perfectly capable of conceiving culinary “twists” or novel “spins” with any of these dishes, I probably wouldn’t. I’d like my menu to include roast chicken and potatoes, pastitsio and Greek salad, macaroni and cheese, lasagne, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and perhaps, on some occasions, turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. I’d use seasonal ingredients whenever possible to make things like pasta with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic and onions, or rich autumn soups based on squash, pumpkin and other root vegetables. In the spring, as far as I’m concerned, there might be no dish without a little asparagus – it goes in the quiche, I make soup out of it, I fill omelettes with it, I serve it steamed alongside the roast chicken, roasted with garlic alongside the lasagne, and over toast with eggs and Hollandaise. The desserts to follow dinner would be more than a cookie, but still pretty low key – coconut cake, key lime pie, homemade strawberry ice cream, and perhaps something rich and chocolate. No fancy coffee drinks or aperitifs, just plain coffee, tea or a glass of milk.
As for the room, I see hardwood floors, lace curtains (or maybe blue and white ticking), mis-matched chairs and tables covered with vintage 40s and 50s tablecloths. Utilitarian restaurant plates, glasses and flatware, and a vase of something fresh on every table during spring and summer. No chotchkes of any kind, but some good, real art on the walls and maybe some framed illustrations from vintage childrens’ books. Eclectic music, but nothing too intimidating or frenetic. I don’t know enough about lighting design to be very coherent, but I know I’d like it to be light enough to see easily, but ambient, and I’m wondering about hanging lights that have simple, possibly frosted glass enclosures like old fashioned kitchen lights. (There’s actually one in my own kitchen, which dates back to 1912). Waitstaff would wear whatever they wanted to wear with an apron over it to identify them as…waitstaff, and the menu would be charmingly illustrated by a friend of mine who can draw anything, and will work for food.
There you have my little fantasy. Its impractical, it won’t happen, but there are many nights that I fall asleep tweaking my menu, deciding whether to buy only organic produce and cruelty-free poultry, meat and eggs, wondering whether the curtains should be lace or plain white cotton….