The 'Third Place'

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Nick Roumel

While trolling for recipes, I stumbled upon a story about “The Restaurant in Apartment 205,” a home-based “popup” in Los Angeles.

I smiled wistfully, lamenting the demise of Selma Cafe.

This was a weekly breakfast salon that I was fortunate to be a part of, hosted every Friday morning in a private home in Ann Arbor’s west side, until disgruntled neighbors and the city forced us to close.

“The Restaurant in Apartment 205” started in 2009 with spouses Nguyen and Thi Tran hosting a twice-weekly dinner in their apartment, dubbed “Starry Kitchen.”

LA Weekly described it thusly: “The elevator carries a few other people who seem uncertain of what they will find as they try out this ‘underground, covert culinary establishment’ for the first time. But with the opening of the doors comes the smell of Asian comfort–food cooking and the sound of happy people. You’re at the right spot.”

What started out as an event for 30 or so friends got too big for its britches, and caught the attention of authorities.

“Starry Kitchen” was invited to move to a local restaurant, and also continued the occasional underground dinner, but likely struggled to capture the same vibe as those early days in the young couple’s apartment.

Selma Cafe was fortunate to have a longer run.

Founded in the winter of 2009, in the large and sunny home of Lisa Gottlieb and Jeff McCabe, Selma presented a completely volunteer driven, local food weekly breakfast party, featuring a different chef and menu every week, for a suggested donation of $12-15 that supported the local food infrastructure.

Many chefs came from existing restaurants; others went on to create their own.

Dishes were hearty and inventive (“put an egg on it and it’s breakfast” became our mantra, always with a side of hoop house greens with herb vinaigrette).

Selma thrived for four years, swelling from the early crowds of 40 or 50 to near 300, before the authorities finally won.

Until that time, Selma offered a gathering place for friends and community to gather and socialize every Friday morning, whether catching up with each other or helping to imagine a vital and sustainable local food economy.

We argued in vain, to the city, that Selma was the essence of traditional and reasonable neighborhood use.

I wrote: “Private homes are the traditional gathering places for like-minded community members to meet, make plans, foment movements and even break bread. Author Ray Oldenburg (The Great Good Place) argues that places like Selma Cafe are ‘third places,’ essential for society, democracy, civic engagement and establishing feelings of a sense of place. Third places are those outside of home and work, and vital in modern times.”

Oldenburg went on to suggest the following hallmarks of a true “third place”:

• Free or inexpensive

• Food and drink, while not essential, are important

• Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)

• Involve regulars — those who habitually congregate there

• Welcoming and comfortable

• Both new friends and old should be found there.

Selma Cafe was all of these.

After leaving the private home, we tried to continue in the community kitchen of local cooperative housing. While it was nice, it simply didn’t have the same vibe nor coterie of passionate college students who walked or biked to Lisa and Jeff’s west side home to start volunteering at 6 a..m.

A similar movement is now starting in Traverse City.

“Co+Café” has sponsored three pop-up breakfasts so far. I was lucky enough to be invited to help with the last one, in a private home.

I got goosebumps as I watched friends gather, enjoying a good breakfast and connecting as they cannot in a restaurant, moving from table to table, lingering over coffee and conversation.

But the legalities of zoning, health codes and organizational structure are formidable. And neighbors will always try to preserve their peace and quiet, and reasonably so.

Maybe one day a place like Starry Kitchen or Selma Cafe can find a niche in a city’s polite and legal society.

While some restaurants approach that vibe — for example, Ann Arbor’s “Spencer” restaurant is earning national raves for its superb food and intimate, family-style atmosphere — the bottom line is that a restaurant is a business. 

And “third places” will have to choose between remaining under the radar, or going legitimate and risking what made them special in the first place.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.

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