Where Y'Eat: Meals With A Mission At Nonprofit Cafés

Apr 18, 2013

At a clutch of nonprofit restaurants, the notion of service extends far beyond waiting tables.

A restaurant meal can make us feel good about ourselves in some different ways. Maybe it’s the validation of you as a smart consumer by choosing dishes made from responsibly-grown ingredients, or it could be just a good old exercise in self-restraint, by skipping dessert.

Some of this may be in our heads. But at a clutch of New Orleans-area restaurants, the entire concept, execution and indeed purpose of your lunch can deliver that feel-good fulfillment in a very real way. 

I’m talking about local nonprofit cafes, where meals and mission come together with dividends for the people who make and serve that meal and for you as part of a community. Some are new, some have been around for a while, and there are interesting changes afoot all around.

The best known of these nonprofit restaurants is Café Reconcile. It’s become an institution in Central City over the years. Not too much else was cooking along O.C. Haley Boulevard when Café Reconcile first opened back in 2000, but this place lured a diverse crowd with good food and a good cause. From the start it has functioned as a teaching kitchen and a career training program for young people who want to turn their lives around. Hundreds of students have since completed its program, learning marketable job skills and going on to internships and paid positions in the city’s hospitality industry.

What’s new here is a gleaming, top-to-bottom renovation of its building, with more dining room space, patio seating, a state-of-the-art kitchen and a new events hall upstairs. As always, you can set your calendar to the daily specials, like Tuesday’s smothered pork chops and Thursday’s white beans and shrimp.

Former staffers from Café Reconcile have gone on to open their own nonprofit restaurants, melding a similar model with their own distinctive styles and spreading the service to more young people. One is Liberty’s Kitchen, which is a job-readiness program, café and coffee shop all in one near the corner of Tulane and Broad in Mid-City. Don’t miss the shrimp and cheese grits. Café Hope is another spin-off, this time operating on the West Bank in Marrero inside the Hope Haven Center, a campus of Spanish mission-style buildings dating back to the 1930s. The Café Hope menu focuses on farm-fresh staples and local fish and meats prepared with lots of Louisiana flavor. New here is Friday night dinner, in addition to the weekday lunches. These four-course evening meals can take you from corn dumpling soup to local duck lacquered with Steen’s cane syrup.

And then there’s Vintage Garden Kitchen, run by the Arc of Greater New Orleans, an agency that helps people with mental disabilities. For years now, Arc clients have making soups and other foods that Vintage Garden Kitchen sells from its Metairie headquarters and from stands at farmers markets. Now, Vintage Garden Kitchen also has a new walk-up café in the food court of the Place St. Charles building in the CBD. Here, during the downtown lunch rush, people line up for soups, salads, wraps and — my personal favorite — the kale slaw.

Much of the raw materials are grown by Vintage Garden Kitchen team members themselves, and like the experience at Café Reconcile, or Liberty’s Kitchen or Café Hope, they go into meals that are not just filling but also fulfilling.

Café Reconcile

1631 O.C. Haley Blvd., New Orleans, 504-568-1157

Vintage Garden Kitchen

925 S. Labarre Rd., Metairie, 504-620-2495

201 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, phone n.a.

Café Hope

1101 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, 504-756-4673

Liberty’s Kitchen

422 S. Broad St., New Orleans, 504-822-4011