Through the door of a small brick building in Madrid, customers sit down to dinner at tables covered in white cloth. Drinks are poured into crystal glasses, and a three-course meal of mushroom consommé, roast turkey and potatoes, and vanilla pudding fills the plates. The restaurant welcomes around 100 guests a night, but none of them pay. They are homeless, and crowds who dine at the Robin Hood restaurant for breakfast and lunch foot the bill so dinner guests can eat free of charge. For paying customers, shelling out a little extra for basic ham, croquetas, and juice earlier in the day is kind of the point: They’re drawn to the restaurant knowing that their meal will help to feed the hungry.
In early December, 80-year-old Catholic priest Ángel García Rodríguez opened the Robin Hood restaurant with the idea that homeless people should be able to eat “with the same dignity as any other customer,” Rodriguez told NPR. García Rodríguez founded the charity Mensajeros de la Paz (Messengers of Peace), of which the Robin Hood restaurant is a part, 54 years ago; his organization, like many others, has worked to accommodate a need exacerbated by the Spanish recession, which, though ended, has left overall unemployment hovering around 20%.
Many of the customers at the Robin Hood restaurant are those who stumbled upon hard times during the financial crisis. NPR spoke to one man, Luis Gallardo, who lost his home after his accounting firm went bankrupt. Since then, he’s been on the streets, but said that meals at the Robin Hood restaurant remind him of Christmases in easier times.
The Robin Hood restaurant is part of a trend that’s been transforming access to good and healthy food in a number of cities. In October, the EAT Café in West Philadelphia opened with a similar philosophy: that everyone should be entitled to a full-service, sit-down dinner in the neighborhood, regardless of whether they can afford the bill. Diners can choose to pay $15 for a full-course meal, donate a little extra, pay whatever they want, or eat for free. Though still operating as a nonprofit, the EAT Café (which stands for “Everyone at the Table”) aims to become self-sustaining over the next several years, with 80% of its customer base paying full-price; it’s already adding a much-needed dining option in an area of the city where non fast-food options are scarce.
Los Angeles’s Everytable takes a slightly different approach: At the café, which opened last summer, guests pay fast-food prices for healthy food like kale salads or Jamaican jerk chicken. Everytable scales its prices to local incomes, so that they will cost $8 in downtown L.A. location (opening this year), but only $4 in less affluent South L.A. The restaurant aims to make good food available in any neighborhood; so far, its South L.A. location has drawn people who may not have time to cook but can’t afford to shell out $12 for a nutritious meal. The founders hope to add more than 10 locations in L.A., then expand to other cities.
In Madrid, García Rodríguez hopes that the Robin Hood restaurant, still in the early phases, will be successful enough to remain open as a permanent fixture. That depends, of course, on its popularity, but for now, that doesn’t seem to be an issue: García Rodríguez is working on getting celebrity chefs to come in and cook dinner once a week, and NPR reported that breakfast and lunch reservations—for paying customers—are completely booked up through March.