Haven on earth: Homeless shelter welcomes public for lunch—and feeds your soul, too.

Director Stephen Hitchcock is rightfully proud of The Haven Homecooking Café, which is open to the public on Wednesdays (except during a summer break), and features meals by local chefs. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Director Stephen Hitchcock is rightfully proud of The Haven Homecooking Café, which is open to the public on Wednesdays (except during a summer break), and features meals by local chefs. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

By Jake Mooney

If you work in downtown Charlottesville and you’re absentminded about bringing leftovers, chances are good you’ve been to all the lunch spots more than once: the pizza, the dumplings, the sandwiches, the Indian buffets, and the fancy sitdown places.

They’re all fine. But the best lunch downtown, adjusted for the all-in cost, the variety of food, and the overall moral and spiritual well-being derived, is at The Haven, the homeless shelter at Market and First streets. Every Wednesday (aside from a summer break), the shelter opens its kitchen to the public, with volunteer chefs preparing a rotating menu for a suggested donation of $10 a person. The money pays for ingredients, kitchen supplies, and service, and the experience is invaluable.

Depending on your taste and the day’s offerings, the food ranges from perfectly good to holy cow: Some past menus have included straightforward chicken or salmon, and others featured a 14-hour-cooked brisket (prepared by the chef from Farmington Country Club), or a range of Afghan specialties by the in-demand pop-up chef Khadija Hemmati.

The food, which includes salad and dessert and a tasty limeade, is only part of it. Past and present Haven guests who have experienced homelessness work in the kitchen and act as wait staff, earning money (tips are included) and valuable experience. You will meet Haywood, a veteran server at the lunches, and if you go more than once you will begin to feel you have made a friend. If you worry that you don’t often see enough people outside your usual demographic and social bubble, this may feel like a baby step in the right direction.

Finally, the seating: It’s communal, at large round tables. Show up alone, or in a small group, and you may well be seated next to strangers, but chances are good they won’t be strangers for long. You may not make much progress in the newspaper you brought, but you will leave feeling more connected to your community.

If you’re inclined to think about these things, deciding which restaurants to support can be tricky. Are you sure the chef treats his staff well? Did you see the owner railing at a government meeting against the idea of paying taxes? Is the sandwich place surprisingly militant about kicking non-diners off its patio? The food may be good, sure, but do some deserve your money more than others?

If it’s a non-summer Wednesday—the hiatus ends September 11—make it simple for yourself and head to The Haven. They take cards, they’re far from the priciest option, and you can rest completely assured that they do deserve it. You won’t be sorry. And you deserve it, too.

Posted In:     2019 Best of C-VILLE Editor’s Pick

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