Hidden Restaurants, v.4: Hidden and Doing Good
Hidden restaurant: An out-of-sight, not readily apparent or concealed business establishment
which sells local and seasonal meals or refreshments.
As I drove up the hill from the Route 2 rotary in Concord toward the Northeastern Correctional Center, I was curious and a little apprehensive. I was on my way to have lunch at the Fife and Drum, a restaurant hidden inside a prison where inmates prepare and serve the food. I parked and looked around for a sign. Not seeing one, I entered one of the buildings, unsure if I was in the right place. Inside, a prison guard told me to leave my bag and cell phone in the car. I followed his instructions, exchanged my ID for a visitor pass, and walked down the hall to Fife and Drum.
I’ve eaten at several hidden restaurants this past year, some requiring passwords or hidden down a dark hallway and others hidden in unusual places. But those that have impressed me most are the ones with a mission of “doing good.” I’ve discovered places that teach culinary arts to workers training for a new vocation, places that serve food to people who need or want a sense of community and places that serve good food to help sick people regain their health.
Here are my discoveries for places where the “hidden” may be the location of the restaurant or it may be the fact they’re “doing good.” As always, the restaurants I’ve chosen source local ingredients in at least some way.
FIFE AND DRUM, Concord
Fife and Drum does not have a website or even a Facebook page, yet both times I visited the brightly lit restaurant was bustling, its nine tables filled with prison workers and people from the community. After handing a woman our money ($3.21 each), my friends and I enjoyed an abundance of freshly made food served by amicable prisoners dressed in white.
Located inside an all-male minimum security and pre-release prison, the restaurant is served by prisoners participating in Northeastern Correctional Center’s culinary arts program, one of its 10 work training programs. The program and its restaurant, Fife and Drum, opened over 30 years ago. Now Eddie Jacobs, a former restaurateur (he used to own EJ’s Barbecue on Moody Street in Waltham), instructs 12 inmates per year in everything from cooking and baking to serving and cleaning. During the yearlong program, students get their food handlers’ license and learn the foundations of cooking. “It’s like a technical high school program,” Jacobs says.
Pretty much everything is made from scratch and, according to Jacobs, the restaurant’s menu includes seasonal vegetables grown in a garden onsite and tended by the prison’s horticulture work training program.
While other prisons offer culinary training, Fife and Drum is the only prison restaurant open to the public in the U.S., according to Jacobs. The restaurant serves lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30am to 12:45pm and is open year-round, but will be closed for a couple of weeks this summer. If you go, be sure to bring your ID. To find out more, call the prison: 978.371.7941 ext. 1109.
CAFE UTEC, Lowell
There is a café on a side street in Lowell where young adults with histories of incarceration or serious criminal activity are learning new job skills. With locally sourced lunch options, including banh mí sandwiches and quinoa salads, Café UTEC serves the public and is one of UTEC’s social enterprises for workforce development.
UTEC, which stands for United Teen Equality Center, began working with Lowell’s youth in 1999 as a teen drop-in center. Now UTEC reaches out to youth to give them job skills, engage them in civic matters and provide intensive support services to help them succeed. With an overall mission and promise to “ignite and nurture the ambition of our most disengaged young people to trade violence and poverty for social and economic success,” UTEC’s workforce development and social enterprises include woodworking and mattress recycling programs, as well as a café and catering program, and now a community kitchen.
UTEC gives young adults from Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill, ages 17–25, real experience in a supportive work environment. “We’re not just training young adults but those with a significant barrier to getting jobs,” says Dawn Grenier, director of grants & communications for the nonprofit.
The café sources as much locally grown produce as possible from Lowell’s urban food production program, Mill City Grows, and will feature salads with local produce and house-made aguas frescas this summer. Cutting boards made by the woodworking division are for sale in the café.
THE FOODIE CAFE, Framingham
Off the beaten path in an industrial part of Framingham is a café helping to create food security. Not long after David and Alicia Blais began selling freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches at The Foodie Café in 2011, they decided they wanted to help with the hunger problem in Framingham and work towards providing food security to its residents.
The couple formed a nonprofit, Daniel’s Table, focused on providing “home-style meals that are produced with care and served with dignity,” and began offering a free monthly dinner to the community as well as lunch packs for the homeless.
Now all profits from The Foodie Café go towards providing food security in Framingham, and Daniel’s Table provides 4,000 meals per week to those in need. The organization employs a three-step process, outlined on its website, in which Daniel’s Table identifies individuals and families that are in need of service, runs an open market with fresh produce and cooking classes and makes healthy food accessible throughout Framingham. They’ve installed over 30 freezers around the city and, according to David, Framingham is one year away from being the first city in the nation to be truly food secure.
Whether it’s chicken stock or tomato sauce, “Everything is made from scratch,” David says. Produce is sourced seasonally from local farms, including Stearns Farm in Framingham, and from Lovin’ Spoonfuls, Wegmans and Whole Foods, and is used to provide food for The Foodie Café as well as Daniel’s Table.
“What makes us different is the people we employ,” Blais says, emphasizing that everyone who works at The Foodie Café cares about the customer. “We’re not perfect but we care.”
OPEN TABLE, Maynard
Hidden inside a church on Thursday nights in Concord and in a small building on Tuesday nights in Maynard are weekly community dinners run by the nonprofit Open Table where you can enjoy a free meal and never feel alone. Meals are simple and prepared by trained amateur cooks and served restaurant-style by volunteers to visitors—no questions asked. “Open Table is all about creating and celebrating community,” says Open Table’s executive director, Jeanine Calabria.
Open Table was established in 1987 and provides community dinners, a food pantry and support services (including legal and medical) to its guests. One paid employee and over 600 volunteers work to fulfill Open Table’s mission: “to provide healthy food, friendship and support to those in need while respecting their privacy and dignity.”
Seasonal produce is donated by local farms, including Drumlin Farm, Gaining Ground, Bent Stone Farm and Verrill Farm. Additional food is sourced from community food drives, local grocery stores and The Greater Boston Food Bank. Volunteers staff the dinners, which always include a vegan entrée and recently have included monthly theme dinners, sometimes with live music. About 150 people dine weekly in the two locations, Calabria says. “We’ve worked hard to make it the healthiest and best meal of the week.”
CONSTITUTION CAFE, Charlestown
Hidden inside Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown is a cafe with harbor views providing fresh, local and nutritional food to its diners. The hospital is part of the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, and its restaurant, Constitution Cafe, helps to educate its customers on healthy eating. There is no fry-o-lator at the restaurant and no empty calorie drinks.
“We have been focusing on local and pushing in that direction since 2013,” says Margaret Vasquez, Director of Nutrition & Food Services for the hospital, adding that the cafe’s increased focus on local food, including locally caught seafood and locally grown seasonal produce, has coincided with an increase in its scratch cooking. “In the cafe we run a weekly lunch grill special on Thursdays based on what is left over from our farmers market,” she says.
The restaurant sources many of its herbs and vegetables from its own small garden tended by its patients and they sponsor an onsite farmers market during summer and fall months. “This year, we are growing tomatoes, sage, rosemary and mint,” Margaret says. “We sell whatever we harvest at the farmers market or make mint tea to sell at the market.” The Wednesday afternoon farmers market features Stone Soup Farm produce—as well as local sweets and breads—and acts as a CSA pick-up location as well.
Patients, visitors and the public are welcome to dine at the cafeteria-style restaurant every day from 6:15am to 11:15pm. In warm months, the windowed cafe expands to include 220 indoor and outdoor seats along Boston’s Harbor walk.
There are other hidden and not so hidden restaurants that are helping people through cooking education and with food:
• Café Reyes, a brightly colored Cuban restaurant in Worcester, serves as an onsite training center for Latino men in substance abuse recovery at the Hector Reyes House.
• Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury provides healthy, locally sourced food to the public and offers paid work experience and job training for people after incarceration as well as cooking and gardening classes for youth and their families.
• Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Company, a café in Lynn, helps train young adults in Haven Project’s Job Training Program, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless and unaccompanied young adults on the North Shore.
• The Root Café in Salem offers fresh and healthy food for takeout as part of its culinary and food service workforce training program for youth.
• The Women’s Lunch Place in Boston offers free breakfast and lunch served restaurant-style to women who need help or friendship or both.
Many Greater Boston and Worcester area churches and other organizations offer free meals for those who need food or community, no questions asked. There are community dinners in Amesbury (Our Neighbor’s Table), Boston (Friday Night Supper), Malden (Bread of Life), Gloucester (Open Door), Groton (Groton Community Dinner), Haverhill (Common Ground Café), Somerville (Project Soup) and many more.
Whether you’re interested in eating, donating or volunteering, check out The Greater Boston Food Bank’s food assistance locater to discover a community dinner near you: gbfb.org/need-food/. Or call Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline to find food resources in your community: 800.645.8333. And as you travel locally this summer, keep your eyes open for “doing good” popups, including farm-to-table dinners, festivals and other eating events raising money for a good cause.