MUNCHIES State of the Suburbs is an exploration of eating in the American suburbs today. What makes suburban dining great, and as the suburbs shift, how are suburban dining scenes changing? Read more here.
For most of the pandemic, a rainbow flag that read “with strength, kindness, and community, we will get through this together,” hung outside Molten Java, a coffee shop in Bethel, Connecticut. Then, in early April, an unknown assailant tore the flag down, burnt it, and scattered the ashes out front. The police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, but Molten Java has kept its doors open.
“It's the most queer friendly establishment on Main Street,” Rachel Ambrose, a regular at the shop, told me. She’s from Southbury—about 24 minutes away—but she became a devoted customer of Molten Java in 2012, after gathering there with friends participating in national novel writing month. “I stopped by last week when I was in the area and the entire front porch of the shop was festooned with rainbow flags, and the sidewalk leading up to the front door was covered with chalk drawings in rainbow colors.”
If Molten Java were to be replaced by a chain like Starbucks, Bethel would lose a refuge for queer people, a welcoming, inclusive space that has remained consistent since 2004, when owner Wendy Cahill opened the shop’s doors.
“A lot of the light would go out of the community,” Ambrose said. “It's really a space for the entire community to come and engage with each other. Losing that would be a really profound loss to the town.”
Ambrose praises the food with equal fervor: The rich, muddy cups of Turkish coffee and platters of huevos rancheros served all day. Hummus and tabouli made from scratch, and chunky, juicy burritos the size of toy fire trucks. And tagine—one of the few places in Bethel where you can find such a dish. Without that ambitious menu, Bethel might as well be Anywhere, USA, another cookie cutter town.
The suburbs are hubs of the anti-chain restaurant: independent establishments usually owned and staffed by a close-knit family or long-time friends. More and more, young people are fleeing big cities for more space and the cheaper rent of the suburbs, changing the demographics of these towns. Yet diners, delis, pizza joints, coffee shops, and even the occasional small but upscale suburban restaurant, endure as repositories of history and community gathering spaces.
At establishments like Molten Java, the decor and menu are also impervious to Instagram trends, untouched by the passing of time. An restaurant's outdated atmosphere might be brushed off as pitiful or even repellent, but for some residents of the suburbs this eternal sameness is comforting. Usually it means customers know the name of the person making their food, what will be on the menu before they arrive and exactly how it will taste. Technology, trends, and food change so swiftly that what seems like an outdated restaurant is really a refuge, a bubble of safety where the world still feels familiar and easy to understand.
Applebees, Chili's, and the Cheesecake Factory might be wildly popular eateries in many suburbs. But they exist alongside beloved staples that carry a different kind of name recognition, depending on communities of regular customers to pass along word of mouth praise. Though this particular type of restaurant—located in strip malls and discreet corners in residential neighborhoods—remains mostly unhelmed by James Beard-award winning or Michelin-starred chefs, they serve, arguably, some of the best food in the country.
The dishes are handmade and resist assembly lines and pre-packaged ingredients, but the ingredients are also basic and familiar—not necessarily artisanal, organic, “clean,” or expensive. The food has intention and pride behind it, and it's often obvious that sheer determination and good food, not corporate backing, cemented their survival in the tumultuous restaurant industry.
Opened in 2017 by husband and wife Vicente Sacramento and Claudia L. Santos in a Monona, Wisconsin strip mall, Monona Bakery and Eatery is an exemplar of such an establishment. It’s the only place selling Honduran food in the Madison suburb, and they source their beans, Honduran cream, and loroco, a variety of edible flower, directly from Honduras. Monona’s Latin American dishes, which include elements of Mexican and Honduran cuisines, are the most popular items on the menu.
Today the family still does all the cooking in-house. According to Claudia Topel, Vicente and Claudia’s daughter, her father bakes the shop’s cakes, while her mother handles the Honduran food, including the Latin soups, tamales, and baleadas. Topel and her sister Wendy are in charge of prep.
“The main thing both of my parents say is that if they are not willing to eat it, then they don't want to sell it,” Topel said. “I think because we are so invested in this, we put as much love into each dish as we can.”
At long-standing family-owned restaurants in the suburbs, like Monona Bakery, the cooks are often working with beloved recipes passed down through many generations. There are also some restaurants in the suburbs that, like modern farm-to-table establishments in big cities, partner with local goods suppliers or farmers to provide seasonal, upscale dishes. Their cooking philosophy is the same as the other, simpler, eateries beloved by people in the suburbs, though: They take great care in the work, preparing dishes deliberately and rejecting the fast food mentality.
Nicole (who asked that her last not be used), a recent transplant to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, stumbled upon Five Senses, a seafood restaurant, located at the back of a strip mall, next to a cat cafe. It’s not the type of place that out of towners could easily find if they didn’t already know about it, and its atmosphere is surprisingly upscale, given its location. But despite its sophisticated menu, Five Senses is far from snobbish; Nicole said that the long-time staff remembers all their repeat customers.
About that menu: Nicole calls it “reliably excellent and creative,” a reputation the restaurant has honed in the 17 years it's been open. She remembers one meal there, where she told the waiter she didn’t think a beetroot salad could be considered a seasonal dish in the middle of summer (beets are a winter vegetable). Instead of being dismissed and ignored, the waiter brought out the owner and executive chef of Five Senses, Mitchell Murphy, who explained that the restaurant’s local farmer supplier grew beets in hoop houses (a steel framed greenhouse covered in plastic) all year around. At the end of the meal, Murphy gifted Nicole with a locally grown tomato.
“You just don’t get that at every restaurant,” she said. “In a super suburban area like Murfreesboro, I honestly have no idea how they survived. I think passionate ownership and sheer grit.”
Survival has become an even more difficult proposition in the era of COVID-19; in the past year around 110,000 “eating and drinking establishments” closed either permanently or temporarily in the United States, according to Fortune. Yet there are some restaurants in the suburbs that have managed to stay open because residents recognize them as the institutions that anchor a town, while the rest of the world continues its swift evolution.
Riley Adams lives in Pleasanton, a suburb in California’s Bay Area. He discovered Gay Nineties Pizza when his wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. The pair ordered the spicy Frank’s Special, a meat-lover's combination of pepperoni, linguisa, ham, sausage, and salami, desperate to induce labor.
It didn’t work, but Adams became enamored with the pizza joint. What draws him back again and again is the pizza crust—never too dry or too flat. He throws out the pizza crust everywhere else except Gay Nineties. But there are also pictures hanging on the walls from parties hosted by the restaurant for people he regularly sees in town, which made him feel at ease. Combined together, these two elements—extraordinary food coupled with spaces that feel like home—make locally-owned, long-standing suburban restaurants worth saving.
“These are community institutions with a history,” Adams said. “It's a chronicling of memories that shows the restaurant is a fixture of the community. You'd rarely, if ever, see such a display at a chain.”
Elisabeth Sherman is the assistant food and drink editor at Matador Network. She lives in New Jersey with her three cats. You can follow her on Twitter at @shermanelis.