A Room of Its Own
Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, no Coke!
by Sally Mitani
"We never even used the word 'vegan' until last year. If people would ask, we'd tell them, but we thought it would deter people if we splashed 'vegan' across the cart," says Phillis Engelbert, co-owner, along with Joel Panozzo, of The Lunch Room, the newly opened restaurant in Kerrytown that grew from a food cart. "Hearty" is how she describes their food. "Mac and cheese, Reubens, pizza. We've had people tell us our mac and cheese is the creamiest, best mac and cheese they've ever had." By "hearty," she also means accessible and familiar, at least in the end result, though maybe not by ingredient list. That macaroni gets sauced with a dairy-free mixture of cashew butter, nutritional yeast, and butternut squash.
She and Panozzo, who were friends and neighbors, stumbled into the vegan world unintentionally: "We both were mostly vegetarian and simultaneously developed lactose intolerance. We started cooking together," which led to pop-up dinners for large groups of people. When Mark Hodesh announced his Mark's Carts project in 2011, Engelbert and Panozzo were among the first to sign up, and the Lunch Room was born.
Kerrytown landlord Joe O'Neal gutted the space for them. The previous tenant, Yamato, had been around so long that nothing was up to current code, so they started with a blank slate. Husband-and-wife design team Adam Smith and Lisa Sauve, who graduated from the U-M architecture school in 2011, used inexpensive materials in inventive ways, like cutting cement board into rectangles and applying it to the walls to look like subway tile. To bring some texture and depth to the ceiling, they dipped thousands of bamboo skewers in blue paint--look up and you see something that looks like porcupine quills. Engelbert says she likes the look but admits she has no idea what it's supposed to represent. "It defines zones," says Sauve. "It's an aggregate of small details. You lose the individual, and everything becomes one."
A long counter divides the kitchen
from the dining room. "You order at the counter," says Panozzo, "and from there, it's like a regular table-service restaurant."
Neither Engelbert nor Panozzo have restaurant or business backgrounds. Panozzo, twenty-eight, is a graphic designer, and Engelbert, forty-eight, a former professional peace activist (she was the first director of Michigan Peaceworks, which existed from 2001 to 2011). How did they learn to oversee sixteen employees, a restaurant open for two and sometimes three meals a day, and a kitchen that makes everything from its own seitan to baked goods?
Starting a restaurant is "a little like community organizing," Engelbert explains. "At Peaceworks, I organized demonstrations, coordinated publicity campaigns, and raised money." She opens her laptop and slides it across the counter--hundreds of lists, spreadsheets, folders, all neatly labeled and organized. "That's how you do it," and in many ways, she says operating the restaurant is easier than the cart. "Not that I'm not busting my butt, but with the cart we were limited. We struggled with the weather. We could only serve cold-holding and hot-holding foods, so we couldn't make much to order." Now that the Lunch Room actually has a room, with cooking and eating under the same roof, she says they can do what they've been dying to do for a long time: "Make cheeseburgers!"
They're actually called "seitanic sliders." The play on words isn't as obvious in writing--it's pronounced "satanic," seitan being a complex wheat product that has a meaty texture. They're served on Mondays, which is pizza and burger night--each night of the week has its own theme, with matching music (Wednesday is Cuban, Saturday is New Orleans). "No funny hats, though." says Engelbert, afraid it's sounding too corny. "We really hope the theme nights take off--it's a chance for us to do something more labor intensive." The famously creamy mac and cheese is on the menu all the time.
The Lunch Room, 407 N. Fifth (Kerrytown Market & Shops), 224-8859. Mon., Tues., & Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Wed. 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. thelunchrooma2.com
[Originally published in September, 2013.]