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One dish is served free -- with gratitude -- at Cafe Gratitude

April 21, 2011 |  6:02 am

There’s one dish at Café Gratitude, the new vegan restaurant on North Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles, that stands out from the others. It’s called the I Am Grateful bowl. Piled high with shredded kale, quinoa, black beans and garlic-tahini sauce, it's filling, flavorful, healthful and free.

That's right. $0. The cafe says it’s the "community supported grain bowl" and lists the dish's suggested value ($7) but doesn't require payment. You can order the dish and pay nothing or something, or pay the suggested value and add a donation for those who can't pay. It doesn't matter how much is in your wallet.

One customer, Daudi McLean, a vegan chef himself, made his way to the cafe when it first opened. He, his wife and five kids were eager to try what the new eatery had to offer. But the gratitude bowl is what has him returning now.

Recently, McLean’s family found themselves without the money they once had. Due to a bad business deal they could no longer maintain the same lifestyle. Since their first visit, they’ve found themselves back again a couple of times — eating once for nothing, then for only $10.

“My son and I used to feed the homeless,” McLean said. “To see that in a real restaurant truly blew me away.”

It is an idea that the San Francisco-based restaurant chain's co-founder, Matthew Engelhart, and his son, Ryland, one of the general managers in L.A., thought of one Christmas morning about 3 1/2 years ago after seeing how people were being affected by the changing economy. They wanted to come up with something that would keep their customers around.

Items on their menu are all named “I Am [fill in the blank]” — be it “Dazzling,” “Peaceful” or “Fulfilled.” "Up until that point we didn't have an 'I Am Grateful' dish," he said. "And it just clicked.

“At our Oakland location, we started out selling about 50 bowls a day. Now we’re up to as many as 200,” Ryland said. “And it’s remarkable, but it always ends up balancing out.”

Remarkable indeed, though it does fit in with the philosophy of the cafe. The place is about more than just another meal — it’s an experience.

Before every shift, servers are asked two questions. The first allows them to vent — or, in the words of one chef there, to “get out all of the negative energy inside.” The second is always positive, some version of, “What are you grateful for?”

They spend time each day talking about how they’re feeling in relation to the world; it's as routine as putting on an apron or clearing plates. The attitude penetrates the walls. They bustle around a long counter and the many tables inside and out, often greeting people they know.

Customer Victoria Cardillo drives all the way from Malibu to eat there. “I try to come at least two or three times a week,” she said. “For me, the combination of everything is what makes it so great. The food is amazing. And when they ask you what you’re grateful for — it’s just so beautiful. The first couple of times I went I burst into tears.”

“Let me put it like this,” Ryland said, “We’re using a commercial endeavor to create a spiritual community.”

And it is that community that welcomed McLean when he fell on hard times. “I talked to Ryland,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t have anything.’ He responded, ‘Don’t worry. Come in. Have a meal.’”

-- Emma Watzman

Click here to see more images of Cafe Gratitude.

Photo: Cafe Gratitude's "I Am Grateful" dish. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times