The make-shift vinyl sign read "Karma Kitchen." It was haphazardly tied over a sign that read "India Polo Club." I thought maybe the place had switched owners and they had been too cheap to replace the sign. Though my date and I were hungry for Indian food, we kept walking - too sketchy.
Thirty minutes later and thirty minutes hungrier, we found ourselves back in front of the vinyl sign. This time we shared a nervous look, an uneasy laugh, climbed the stairs and swung the door open on a culinary wonderland that would, by the end of my meal, swing every assumption I had about food, prosperity, abundance, and my relationship to money in a huge hexadecagon (which is slightly sexier and more masculine version of a circle).
We were greeted and seated by a disheveled white guy who mumbled while he poured our waters. He looked like a poor writer who typed short stories on an Underwood in a studio apartment in front of a fan.
When I asked the mumbler if he accepted credit cards he shook his head and mumbled and when I said something about going to an ATM to get money he mumbled something else and when I whispered to my date that I felt uncomfortable about not having cash the mumbler handed us a one page paper menu and said (sans mumble), "Don't worry about it. Just chill."
I leaned back in my seat and tried to chill. But, I felt weird about not having cash and felt even weirder when I noticed that there were no prices on the menu.
A young Indian waitress appeared.
"Is there anything on the menu you would not like?" she said.
Had I misunderstood her? I told her the two entree's that my date and I would like.
She nodded and explained, "Our vegetarian meals are served family style, which means you'll get everything on the menu, including dessert and drinks. Your meal was also paid for by someone else. At the end of the meal you will get an envelope to make a gift offering to place in the box by the door. There is no recommended dollar amount and no one knows how much you put in."
I looked behind me. By the door, there was a small box. What a beautiful idea. Money had been totally removed from the equation.
But as we waited for our food, I began to wonder, What if eating here is like eating with my twin sisters - they say one thing, but they always mean something else and What if they really want us to pay for our meal even though they've told us they don't. I only had four dollars. I felt a rash coming on.
By the time our food came, I felt strange - like all of this was a passive-aggressive-reverse-psychology-karmic joke being played on me by my gaurdian angel. We ate in silence. The food was delicious. I wanted to run away. As I chewed and swallowed, the lyrics to Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," popped in my head. "Gina dreams of runnig away/When she cries at night Tommy whispers baby it's okay." My date gave me a mousy look.
By the time the waitress came back I was filled with anxiety and quotes. Nothing in life is free. Better safe than sorry. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This sort of thing didn't make sense.
The waitress asked if we wanted more. I told her I needed an explanation. She handed my date a box of beautiful stationery.
"Each Sunday," she said. "We make the Polo India Club into the Karma Kitchen. It started in Berkley, CA and now we have it here in DC. As a customer you can stay as long as you want and eat as much as you want. If you want to stay for 3 hours and eat once every hour, that's fine. No one tries to push you out the door and no one will rush you."
Before she walked away she explained that all the waiters and waitresses were volunteers and most had never done this sort of work before (hence the mumbler). She also said I didn't have to pay by money. She gave me a card that listed different ways I could "Pay it forward" that included: buying a dozen balloons and taking them to a retirement home or telling someone in my family how much I appreciated them.
I imagined going home and telling my twin sisters how much I appreciated them and having them punch me in the stomach.
When she came back to our table she gave me a lavender votive candle in an unopened box. I thanked her and asked her about a large table to my right where a lively conversation had been going on. "That is our community table. Strangers sit with strangers and become friends by the end of the meal."
I asked her what the deal was with the gifts. She said being "tagged" was an essential part of the experience. She then handed us a karma card that read, "Like gravity, karma is so basic we often don't even notice it."
At the end of the meal, our final gift came in an envelope - the bill. The final price was $0.00.
I slipped my four dollars inside the envelope, dropped it in the box and as we left the Karma Kitchen I wondered if this sort of thing could be replicated in other places, in other types of restaurants. Evidently, the answer is yes.
I hope you'll take a chance like I did, find one of these places, and share an odd, anxiety filled, life-changing moment with someone you barely know.