This is why I love independent theaters. And restaurants, and bookstores, and coffee shops.
It’s a cold Sunday evening in late November, dark and raining outside the Grandin Theater, and I have a date with myself since my fiancee is in Missouri. Well, a date with Harry, I guess. And I’ve hit on the perfect combination. Big screen, small audience, a cup of hot Earl Grey tea, a Hershey bar and “The Goblet of Fire.”
What multiplex gives you a choice of ginger beer, Celestial Seasonings tea and homemade cookies from the bakery around the corner? Besides the popcorn, Raisinets and sodas.
This is why I love independents.
And why I get really irked by Olive Garden commercials.
“When you’re here, you’re family,” they say all warm-like, running vignettes of brothers and sisters trading cute quips and waitresses smiling like old friends.
Olive Garden is not family.
The breadsticks are pretty good and the bottomless salad bowl still an interesting novelty, but Olive Garden is what it is – a chain restaurant staffed by well-trained college students who don’t know me from Eve, with a faux Italian atmosphere no more Old World than pizza.
But mainstream marketing keeps enticing us to eat at Olive Garden, browse at Barnes & Noble, save at Wal-Mart, pay outrageous ticket prices for stadium seating movies and pretend to be hip or grungy at the corner Starbucks, which looks and tastes and smells and sells just like every other Starbucks across the country.
That’s not hip.
What it comes down to is that mainstream is marketing everything we think we want – the restuarant where they know what you want before you order – the coffee shop populated by intellectual nonconformists huddled over laptops, or leafing through dogeared copies of T. S. Eliot they picked up at the dusty bookstore next door – when in fact all those things exist, but are being driven steadily out of business by the wannabes.
Here’s the challenge: don’t give in to the easy. It might mean you need to do a little research – sure, Starbucks serves a strong, decent cup of coffee wherever you find it, and what’s easier or more reassuring than coming across one of those familiar green signs while traveling in parts unknown?
You might have to actually go to a few places, do a little research, but believe me, there are plenty more places that serve good and better coffee in environments that aren’t contrived.
That’s not easy. But it’s real.
Here’s my list of where I feel like “family,” whenever I go:
Mojo Cafe, on the way to work. I called in a take-out order a month or two ago and by the time I got to the “strawberry” in “I’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on toasted sourdough with fruit on the side” I heard, from the other end of the line, a laugh and “I know who you are!”
Ditto for Zak’s downtown, where half the time I order a Church Avenue Roma, no mayonnaise, with baked apples on the side, they know it’s me.
I still mourn the Daily Grind on Grandin Road, where Greg, the day manager, would brew up hazelnut if he saw me walk in the door.
The staff of Nawab, just off the farmer’s market, even if I haven’t been by in six months remembers me and that I really like the chicken tikka kashmiri but occasionally will experiment, and every now and then a suprise bowl of rice pudding will show up without my even asking.
And of course, Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea, two doors away from Nawab. One afternoon’s most brilliant example of how great their barristas are:
Ahead of me, an older couple, she in a fur coat, he in well-dressed preppy, ask what the strongest blend is. The barrista explains the difference between strong brew and strong flavor, acidic and smooth. A decision is made.
I step up to the counter next, not in fur and obviously in desperate need of a caffeine fix, and ask about the strength of the day’s featured regular.
“It’ll make you poop,” returns the barrista.
“I’ll take it,” I say.
• Yes, you read that right – fiancee. As of October, I’m officially engaged, to be married next October. Though a good friend in northern Virginia is concerned my life will be given over to casseroles, no fear – I still cannot cook, and thankfully my fiancee can, and does, enthusiastically. More to come on the adventures of planning a wedding without losing one’s mind.
• Another great Grandin Theatre evening – seeing, bigger than life, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” on the big screen. I grew up on C. S. Lewis’ books – I think they were one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me. All seven books, one by one – once I’d devoured one, the next would… magically… appear, until I’d read all seven. And then I read them again, and again. My mother, once I got older, explained the Christian allegories, beautifully told in these stories of love and redemption and peace and imagination. Whatever your faith, the books are at their most basic level stories of the power of good.
• Mill Mountain Theatre’s “A Wonderful Life” is almost at the end of its run, and it’s provided a little more holiday magic for me as I’ve had the good fortune to play keyboard II in the orchestra pit for another winter (eight shows a week, approximately, since Nov. 18). What’s better on a December evening than a cup of Jeffrey’s jambalaya, cafe au lait from Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea and coming in from the cold to MMT’s energetic backstage for two hours and 45 minutes of song and dance? If you haven’t caught it, reserve a seat for one of the last few shows. MMT cast and crew put their all into every downtown production.
Cara Ellen Modisett is editor of Blue Ridge Country, The Roanoker’s sister magazine. She prefers her curry mild, her jelly strawberry, her books dogeared and her coffee strong as mud.