I couldn’t afford to eat at restaurants very much, but Jonathan convinced me that we should try this new place called “Squared.”
“What kind of food do they have?” I asked over the top of my laptop screen.
“I don’t know. It’s something new – farm-fusion or something like that,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever you want.”
He came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders.
“I want what you want, too,” he whispered, warming my ear and sending a jolt through my body.
I flushed with warmth and nuzzled into his cheek. I started seeing Jonathan after our class in post-modern poetry. He wasn’t the kind of guy I normally dated. He wore skinny jeans and fitted flannel shirt like they were a uniform, and his saggy knit cap was always on his head. He was conscientious and well-educated – completely opposite from the dude-bros back home.
“Well, then – let’s go tonight.”
The restaurant was on the main drag in town, where a lot of foot traffic could be enticed to enter. No menu was posted on the windows, I noticed. Unusual. I looked on my phone to see if I could find anything. But it just said that the menu changed daily.
Inside the restaurant, sheet metal walls made the place feel like the inside of a fancy trash can. The tables were made of reclaimed wood, and folding metal chairs sat at each table. The flooring, varnished concrete, was a shiny gray. An exposed lightbulb, dimmed to an amber glow, hung over each table. A strange smell permeated the lobby.
“Isn’t it great?” Jonathan asked, snaking his arm around my waist.
“What’s that smell?” I asked.
An impossibly thin woman jogged up to the hostess stand.
“Table for two?” she asked.
“Could we look at a menu?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat in a place that smelled so weird. Would they have something for the unsophisticated among us? I looked at Jonathan for help.
The girl giggled and said, “There’s only one thing on the menu, but it’s a little different every day. The chef owns three Michelin rated restaurants, and this is his newest venture.”
“Three Michelin rated restaurants?” Jonathan said, stroking his trim beard with appreciation. “Nice.”
The hostess started walking away, and Jonathan followed. Feeling left out, I hurried to catch up.
“I thought Michelin was a kind of tire,” I mumbled into Jonathan’s ear.
“Oh, Vanessa, honey,” Jonathan said. “Michelin is the only restaurant guide that counts.”
We walked through the maze of tables, and I strained to see what people were eating. In the dim light, it looked a bit like Indian buffet food – unidentified clots of protein covered in a spice-bespeckled sauce. But the smell was off. I couldn’t place it.
I settled into my folding chair, feeling like I had been banished to the kiddy table at Thanksgiving. Jonathan looked around with a satisfied glow.
“This is amazeballs,” he said. “I love the folding chairs. It’s so practical and noveau riche!”
“I think newly rich people would probably buy something slightly more comfortable,” I said. “If I had money, I would.”
“Oh come on,” he said. “The new thing is for the bourgeois to get back to their roots.”
“So rich people are making themselves cool by pretending to be poor? Catchy.”
I folded my hands, not knowing what to do with them. I never knew I would miss perusing a menu.
A waitress with multiple facial piercings and dyed shaggy black hair came to the table with water.
“No ice,” Jonathan said. “That’s so European.”
I had never been to Europe. I wouldn’t know. Yet, wanting to please Jonathan, I nodded in agreement.
“Have you dined with us before?” the waitress asked in a voice that exuded insider.
“This is our first time,” we said at the same time.
Jonathan laughed and waved his hand to the waitress to continue her spiel.
“Well,” the waitress put her hands on her hips and struck a pose to recite: “As you probably have heard, there’s only one thing on the menu every day, and it’s based on whatever we have on hand. The mission of the restaurant is to relieve food waste, so we compost everything for a minimum of a week, and whatever we have is what’s served.”
“Wait,” I said. “What do you mean by we compost everything?”
The waitress looked at me as if I were an idiot.
“Do you know what composting is?” she asked.
“It’s, like, organic fertilizer, or something,” I said.
“Basically,” she said. “But it starts out as left overs, you know, like food waste, leafy greens, fungus, dirt, worms – “
“I get it,” I said. “It’s great that you compost your leftovers.”
“No,” she said. “We serve compost.”
“What?” I said, aghast.
“The chef came up with the concept,” she went on. “He has three other restaurants, and he was tired of seeing so much food go to waste. So he came up with the idea of composting leftovers, and reimagining them as a new dish. We call it ‘Square’ because the food gets exponential amounts of use that way – you know, like x2.”
“That is . . . “ Jonathan searched for a word. I waited for him to express what I was feeling – nauseated. “. . . heroic.”
I stared at Jonathan and then the waitress. So they were charging twenty-five dollars a plate for garbage – and this was heroic?
“It’s totes amazing,” the waitress said. “It saves lives, too. Do you know that there are thirty-five dumpster-diving deaths per year in this area? Homeless people get trapped in dumpsters when they’re looking for food, and they get crushed when the trucks empty and compact the trash. But since we started composting the leftovers from the Michelin restaurants, we’ve only had one dumpster death, and we think that was drug related.”
“Incredible. What a reduction,” Jonathan said, shaking his head with amplified appreciation. “That is so legit.”
“It’s food with a conscience, you know?” the waitress said, her eyes soft with true belief. “You can get your compost fresh, which is a scoop from the top, or aged, which is more like a soup, from the bottom of the bin. There’s a vegetarian side and a protein-rich side.”
She brought her pad and pen out of her apron and looked at us expectantly.
“So? Old, new, protein, or not?” she asked, poised to take our order.
“Uhm. . . ” I stalled. “What’s the protein?” I asked, fearing the answer.
“The protein is live worms,” she answered. “We like to think of them as locally sourced calamari.”
My hand flew to my mouth as the thought of worm-laden food made me gag. The waitress looked bored.
Trying to regain control, I whimpered, “Calamari is squid, not worms.”
“It’s all in the protein family,” the waitress replied. “We do fry them upon request.”
I searched Jonathan’s face for any semblance of disgust. Instead, he appeared radiant with excitement.
Any minute I’m going to be sick.
“I’m sorry. I can’t eat here,” I said, scooting back from the table.
“But Vanessa,” Jonathan said. “We have to try it. Come on, for me?”
I stood and looked around at the other diners. There had to have been forty people sitting at their tables, taking pictures of their food, laughing, and eating the waste of other well-rated restaurants. The smell I’d encountered upon entering struck me as revoltingly clear – it was a dump.
Look at these people, I thought. They’re eating a thousand dollars’ worth of swill.
Fighting dizziness, I fled to the street, thinking the only contribution I might add to Square’s wild concoction of slop was the contents of my own stomach.
Outside in the fresh air, I sucked in clean gasps, trying to rid myself of the thoughts the squalid menu inspired. Was this really the inevitable evolution of eating with a conscience?
Jonathan joined me on the sidewalk, mouth tense with rage.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just – “
“You embarrassed me,” he said. “Yes, their food is a little unconventional, but think of how much they are doing to feed the hungry.”
“The hungry who can pay $25 per plate?” I said. “That’s a little rich, don’t you think?”
“Don’t you see? We’re going to miss out,” he said. “I thought you liked trying new things.”
“What they have isn’t new,” I spat. “Can we please go somewhere else?”
Jonathan crossed his arms over his chest.
“Fine. You know, Vanessa, this says something to me. God, I can’t even . . .” Jonathan said, his head bobbing in agreement with his own interior monologue. “Yeah, I think this is over, babe. I think we’re not on . . . the same level.”
I straightened up and felt a knot releasing within my sick stomach.
“Are you breaking up with me?” I asked.
He sniffed and stared at the ground.
I looked back at the restaurant and then again at Jonathan. He was right. We weren’t on the same level.
“Okay,” I said. I turned and walked away. At the corner of the street I waited for the light to turn green. Down the strip, I noticed the tip of a familiar logo and started to feel better about my chances of getting dinner. The light changed, and I hurried toward the Golden Arches to some garbage I could handle.
Author’s Note: “Squared” came about after a conversation with my husband at a gimmicky restaurant in Cincinnati. Full of fad-fabulous food, we joked about the lengths to which a restaurant will go to make itself unique. Almost instantly, the idea for “Squared” came fully formed in my head. The story is not just about food trends, though. It also speaks to the irony that people can’t see in foodie culture and themselves.