There aren't many dining rooms in Kansas City that drip with the milk of human kindness. Café Gratitude is practically swimming in it — along with coconut, hazelnut and almond milk (never cow's). The first licensed Midwest outpost of the popular California haven for vegan, organic and raw food opened its doors in May, and its attractive serving crew radiates the beatific glow of new apostles.
"I'm so excited to be working here," gushed the pretty young waitress attending our table on my first visit to the restaurant. Hey, great, good for you. But there was more: "It sort of goes along with where I am spiritually in my life. It's the right place for me to be."
I usually recoil from this kind of candor, but this young woman was so sincere, so unabashed, that I couldn't look away from her long enough to roll my eyes. I had come to try the food and been confronted with an avatar of purely good intentions.
I don't want to say her efforts on me were wasted, but I'm certainly on the more cynical side of the vegan-restaurant patronage spectrum. At Café Gratitude, you can practically see the cheery, positive ions circulating through the air. And I can see those ions bouncing right off me in search of a more absorbent customer.
A part of me would like to embrace each server announcing to his or her table a "question of the day" or messages like a sentence printed on the menu: "Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness." But I've been there, done that. I worked in a macrobiotic restaurant for a couple of years and piously extolled the virtues of alfalfa sprouts and organic apple juice — until I was fired for sneaking a Little Debbie Swiss Roll. (Sometimes aliveness demands sugar.)
Café Gratitude would be a first-rate restaurant without all the holistic hoopla. Yes, the menu asks that you "step inside and enjoy being someone who chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for," as though Oprah is making your dinner. But there are smartly made, flavorful items here that can't be had elsewhere (or easily undertaken at home), and that's worth a little pressure to re-avow one's self-worth.
I didn't walk out of the restaurant adoring myself, but I did adore the weird thrill of getting a flattering affirmation every time a new dish or beverage came to the table. It's one thing to request an espresso-flavored, dairy-free (and memorably delicious) milkshake, "I Am Eternally Blessed" — everything at Café Gratitude is called "I Am" something or other — but it's another when a shiny, happy server sets it in front of you and proclaims, "You are Eternally Blessed." I wasn't sure whether to sip the concoction or cross myself with it as if it contained holy water.
If something godly is in any of these beverages (and there are a lot of beverages), it's the I Am Immortal, which might be even more bracing served in a chalice rather than the oversized mug that usually holds it. I Am Immortal is a powerful liquid, described on the menu as an "immune system enhancing, consciousness expanding, ancient tonifying elixir." It's made with reishi, shilajit and ormus (God only knows, I thought), and so heavily dusted with ground cinnamon that the warm, umber brew can nearly pass as a highly aggressive cocoa. "Shilajit is a mineral," announced my server that afternoon. (Later I learned that reishi is a medicinal mushroom, whereas ormus is "orbitally rearranged monoatomic elements.") It's a pleasant, soothing drink, but I think my immune system got a more potent punch from the jigger of freshly juiced wheatgrass I'd ordered before deciding I wanted to live forever. Yes, wheatgrass tastes lousy, but everything's more intoxicating served in a shot glass.