St. Martin’s Table

31 07 2009

By Meredith Hart

St. Martin's TableThe Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis is best known for its diversity, edge, counterculture, nightlife, and restaurants. Everyone knows the big acts: The Cedar Cultural Center, Augsburg College, and Hard Times Café, along with the large apartment buildings and the light rail. However, nestled along Riverside Avenue between the gritty, brick buildings and the shiny new college facilities, is an inconspicuous little restaurant called St. Martin’s Table. A part of the Community of St. Martin, the restaurant is truly unique in its mission and operations, as it serves not only its daily customers from the surrounding community but also people from all over the globe. One visit to St. Martin’s Table can include a wonderful meal or a new book from their bookstore, but definitely the feeling that you are in the presence of something inspiring.

All four interns made the trip to St. Martin’s on an abnormally chilly Friday in July, the perfect weather for a lunch in the cozy café. St. Martin’s Table is set low in the ground with just enough vertical space for several wide windows to let in a dim light. The décor is homey and comfortable complete with heavy wooden tables and chairs, hanging plants, and strings of white Christmas lights snaking through the low ceiling beams. Just within the doors, we were warmly greeted by Gert Brixius, the restaurant’s General Manager, who took us past the colorful bookshop to our table. Aside from being a successful restaurant, St. Martin’s Table also boasts a collection of postcards, international handicrafts, and over 1,600 books on the topics of nonviolence, social justice, global issues, and everything in between. These topics all reflect the values of the St. Martin’s Community, an Ecumenical Christian Worshipping Community, named after five historical Martins devoted to social change and equality. Most familiar are Martin Luther and more recently Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Greek Salad and Vegan CakeThe first thing we did was take a good long look at the menu. Everyday there is the choice between two or three soups, salads, and open-face sandwich spreads with a range of possible combinations of the three. Unique to many restaurants, St. Martin’s Table places cards on each table with all the ingredients listed of each menu item, a move to show extra concern for patrons with dietary restrictions or allergies. Along with that are three delicious dessert options, something at least two of us could not resist. For lunch, three of us chose the cup of Mexican white bean soup, a thick and creamy soup with three different types of cheese and the half sandwich made on daily baked bread with a peanut coconut curry tofu spread topped with bean sprouts. The fourth intern chose the beautiful Greek salad made with crisp vegetables, feta cheese, and a light vinaigrette.

Our food quickly came out, warming us up from the unexpected chill and making us feel right at home in the restaurant. As we ate, Gert and the main chef of 13 years, Judah Nataf, sat with us to talk about the philosophy behind St. Martin’s Table.

The wait staff is made up entirely of volunteers.  All the smiling people that ask for your order and bring out the food are there on their own time without any financial benefit. Money from the customers’ bill goes to the cost of running the restaurant while tips go to a different hunger-focused charity every month.  The selected charity for July is Nourish the Children, an organization that works to feed children around the world suffering from malnutrition.  Typically, St. Martin’s Table contributes $2,000 to 3,000 a month to charity from tips alone, an incredible feat for a humble, restaurant open for only three and a half hours a day, with only word-of-mouth marketing. Through generosity, St. Martin’s Table expands its community to the rest of the world, in addition to Minnesotans.

Chef Judah NatafAnother important aspect of St. Martin’s Table is what it serves and where it sources its food. All the items on the menu are either vegetarian or vegan in an attempt to stay as low as possible on the food chain. They also offer only a few menu choices a day, a strategy meant to reduce the amount of waste. “We never throw anything away,” says Judah, who plans all five days’ menus at the beginning of the week. “If we have a bunch of stuff in the fridge, I’m going to put it in the soup.”  Although this sounds haphazard, his process is anything but: “I believe in intuitive cooking.  It has to do with where you’re from, the aromas from your childhood,” he explained.  Between this and working within the boundaries of the season, Judah has successfully found a balance that results in consistently great food. At St. Martin’s they also make conscious choices about where the ingredients come from, nearly all from Minnesota or Wisconsin. As they listed the different sources, a stream of first names of farmers and food makers accompanied. The community of a plate at St. Martin’s is extensive no matter what you order and is usually made up of long-established relationships that have become friendships.

With or without this information, the atmosphere at St. Martin’s Table is delightfully relaxed and informal. Anyone entering off the street can stop in for a delicious lunch and be on their way, all the while contributing to global hunger relief and the local economy.  St. Martin’s Table is a truly unique establishment performing admirable endeavors and as long as it is around so will be a healthy community of a plate.

To see more photographs of St. Martin’s Table, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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