There's a Restaurant in New York Where You're Not Allowed to Talk
Oct 1 2013
There is a restaurant called Eat on Meserole Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that once a week, holds a 90-minute dinner where customers eat in complete silence. A few years ago, the restaurant's owner spent a few months in a Buddhist monastery in India. This spawned the restaurant's intention of having customers eat in silence to reflect on each piece of food being consumed.
When I read an article about it that my friend had sent me, I said, "Oh, good! This is the end of the world." Nevertheless, I was fascinated. I asked my roommate, Suzy, to come with me, made a reservation via email with the restaurant's owner/chef, and was required to give him our orders ahead of time.
The restaurant was midway down Meserole in a very quiet patch of buildings. Looking into the large front window, I saw hanging lanterns, white walls, and wood fixtures. Above the door was steel, welded in cursive and spelling Eat. It felt like the designer had either googled "literally whimsical," or didn't sleep for a week, and watched nothing but the DVD menu for Big Fish. It did look charming, though.
Outside, a small crowd waited to go in, and we realized there was a news crew there. I walked up to a middle-age woman who appeared to be affiliated with them.
"Are you here for the silent dinner?" I asked. "I am not. I am journalist," she said. Her accent was heavy, either Russian or Eastern European. "Reporting on the silent dinner?" I asked. "No," she said. "OK," I said. "Well, yes I am here for silent dinner. But I am journalist." I nodded, and Suzy asked who she was. "She's a journalist," I said.
The head chef greeted us at the door after being interviewed by the news crew. He smiled a lot, shaking our hands as we walked in. The restaurant was small, with three two-person tables set against one wall, and two large tables, with seats for about ten each, against the other. Reggae music played as we sat at the end of the big table closest to the kitchen. For about 20 minutes before the actual silence began, we were allowed to, or I guess encouraged, to talk amongst ourselves and get briefly acquainted with the people around us. We learned that most of our table was made up of journalists. The news crew remained in the restaurant entrance, shining hot, blinding lights on all of us, loudly snapping pictures. There was talk that the crew was Estonian, and someone mentioned Al Jazeera TV.
The man next to me at the table was also a journalist, and asked me why I was there, and if he could get my impressions after dinner. I told him I was writing something about it, but then realized I shouldn't have even told him that. A woman across the table wearing a turtleneck, who looked like Wendy Crewson in The Good Son (and also the wife of the journalist next to me), clearly overheard me say I was writing something, and asked me who it was for. My face felt hot from the camera lights.
"I'm not writing anything," I said quickly.
"Oh... So you're just here then?" "Yes," I said. She looked confused, but nodded, turning away. "Why did you lie?" Suzy asked. "I have no idea."
A guy in his early twenties and a much older woman joined our table, causing temporary seating rearrangement. They also sounded vaguely Eastern European. I assumed they were mother and son, but when they started making out, I realized I know nothing of anything. The obviously-not-mother-and-son began taking selfies soon after. "I'm excited to be silent," Suzy said watching them.
The head chef told us how happy he was to continue with this experiment. He mentioned how in previous silent dinners, people have waited for others to be served, which wasn't necessary, but he still found it "heartening". When he added that the vegan chocolate ice cream dessert had wine vinaigrette on it, the Not Mother in the Not Mother and Son Couple raised her hand. "We can't have alcohol," she said loudly. "It's just a dressing," he said after a pause. Then, without anyone even asking, the chef assured us that vegan chocolate ice cream is "just as rich" as regular ice cream, and chuckled to himself.
After the chef's pep talk, the music stopped, we were asked us to put our phones away, the potentially Estonian news crew was asked to leave, and silence swallowed up the room. The four course meal was brought out, one by one, by the head chef, and one of the other three employees (all three were women). Suzy and I opted for the seafood route over vegetarian. Butternut squash soup, salad, fish, and the chocolate ice cream. Both the chef and the other server maintained a slightly affected placidity throughout dinner. I couldn't decide if they were on par with very committed haunted hayride actors, or if they truly believed in this.
While the overpriced food wasn't anything life affirming, it was kind of nice to just eat. For maybe fifteen minutes, I drank the gluten-free Kool-Aid, and started getting into it. I am very present right now, I thought to myself as I ate salad that I could have probably purchased at 7-Eleven. I didn't feel impolite staring at other people. In fact, I felt like it was necessary. A few times, while chewing the stale bread, I purposefully locked eyes with a man across the room who looked like an inventor, and everything felt like it was in its right place. We're all sharing this! I thought.
My zen was broken, however, when Turtleneck Woman started engaging me in wordless conversation from across the table. She must have forgiven me for my unnecessary deception earlier, because she kept pointing things out to me that were happening at our table, and around the room, and shrugging. I never figured out what she wanted me to look at, but I gave her knowing nods anyway. After a few minutes of pretending to understand Turtleneck Woman, with the clinking of silverware and throat-clearing echoing off each wall, the room began to collapse on me. I felt like I was coming to from a blackout, and the restaurant became the most terrifying, Sierra-filter Instagram photo ever.
The journalist next to me refused to get his picture taken by a photographer who walked up to our table. The Not-Son in the Not-Mother-and-Son couple gestured at me and smiled, pretending to hold a camera and take pictures/get photographed. He made the peace sign, picked up a small pumpkin from the table to pose with it, and silently laughed and laughed. In that moment, I was fully confident that this would be the place where I die.
Behind a small curtain, the other employees in the kitchen prepared the food in silence as well, with that same calm look on their faces. It seemed like they weren't actually making food, but just shaking air-salt and air-pepper into air-pots of air-soups, just like the Not-Son and his air-camera. I wondered if I had even eaten food, that maybe this had all just been a nap dream, and I would wake up sweaty and disoriented, but safe in my bed on a Sunday afternoon where I'd think, That was a shitty dream and then google Flo, the Progressive Girl's net worth.
When everyone was finished eating, the head chef ended the quiet by thanking us. Someone started clapping, which quickly erupted into a restaurant-wide applause, including the news crew. The other chefs in the kitchen slapped each other's hands and pumped their elbows back, hissing "YES" with their eyes closed. It was time to go.
I got up to get some money at an ATM down the street, so we could pay the bill and leave the restaurant forever. On my way out the door, a reporter from the film crew stopped me to ask if I had just eaten dinner.
"No, sorry," I said.
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