The Community Cafe & Bookstore is counterculture at its best. Like the Bethesda Avenue Food Co-op to which it is physically attached, the cafe sells "food for people, not profit" -- and does so in a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
Your order food at a counter and, while you wait for your name to be called, (it is not the most efficient operation in the world), you can browse through the wonderful selection of practical and consciousness-raising books and other items, including an offbeat assortment of vegetable and herb seeds and a thoughtful collection of children's books.
Both the food co-op and the cafe/-bookstore are run by a salaried workers' collective eager to provide natural foods at low prices and to raise public awareness about nutrition. Fortunately, their approach to this noble goal is fairly appetizing, a quality less highly valued in some health food establishments than others.
I discovered the Community Cafe when I stopped to check out the co-op's food prices (very reasonable). Thirsty, I ordered the cafe's "Jenny," a refreshing, yogurt version of a pina colada. That drink, plus news that the Friday evening movies are free -- 9 p.m., donations encouraged -- was all the impetus we needed for a family outing. The person in charge of movies was called out of town, so we didn't get to see "The Yearling." Still, we had a pleasant evening and an ample meal, with about an 80 percent success rate. Five of us ate our fill for $22.40 plus tip.
The menu features sandwiches, soups and drinks, plus one hot meal served daily, noon to closing, execpt Mondays, which are Mexican nights from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Some evenings the menu features a particular cuisine (African, Far Eastern, southern United States); more often a particular dish is featured, such as quiche, spinach crepes, asparagus royale, broccoli stroganoff, Irish potato-bread rarebit or Bulgarian pepper-cheese delight.
Judging from what we sampled, relatively few of the dishes fall into the brown-on-brown school of vegetarian cooking, the spinach pie (80 cents) being a distinct exception -- tasteless spinach wrapped in a heavy pastry that goes down with a thud and in our case was scorched to boot.
The vegetable soup was fresh and teeming with vegetables.
Sandwiches were imaginatively conceived and generously endowed. The Middle Eastern sandwich (2.25) combines hummus with green peppers, onions, sprout, cucumber, lettuce and dressing on pita bread.
Ingredients you might not expect to mesh very well often succeed brilliantly. Elephant's Delight, for instance, contains homemade peanut butter, bannanas and sunflower seeds on whole-wheat pita. A large portion sells for $2.50, but we bought the $1.60 kid-size portion and fought the kids for it. We supplemented the sandwiches with a substantial salad from the salad bar ($1.50 to $2.75).
When we go back, we'll probably double up on our order for yogurt-fruit salads. The large fruit-nut yogurt salad served in a bow ($3.20) features fresh, lovely pieces of apple, strawberries, bananas and a few other unidentified pieces of fruit with brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and raisins, served with an excellent fresh yogurt.
At a less ambitious level, the banana-yogurt cup ($1.50) was nearly as tasty but more difficult to eat: you have to fish the slices of banana at the bottom of the cup up through the yogurt, gathering sunflower seeds, dates and rasins in your spoon along the way.
Both salads tasted almost like dessert, and might be another time (especially if desert is strawberry tofu cheesecake, a chalky-tasting dish that strengthened our prejudice against tofu desserts.)
Or, instead of ordering dessert, you might finish the meal with one of the cafe's drinks. Our girls were very much taken with the carob shake with Haagen Dazs ice cream, one of the most successful carob concoctions I've tried. The banapple juice is a bit cinnamony for my taste, the grape juice fine, the pina colada okay -- but the Jenny is the stand-out.
Fancier drinks cost about 90 cents for small, $1.60 for large cups; simpler drinks like lemonade somewhat less, Perrier 50 cents and 80 cents, and herbal tea (made with spring water) an economical 35 cents.
Hours: Mondays, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Price range: $1.50 to $5.25 (on Mexican night).
Reservations: Not needed.
Credit cards: Cash or checks only.
Special facilities: Free parking in rear; a wooden high chair; no wheelchair access.