Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J., lets patrons pay as they choose, through monetary donations or volunteering. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

How was I going to pay my bill at Soul Kitchen?

That niggling question weighed on my mind even before the waitress filled my glass of water, much less took my order. In fact, I started ruing this dilemma on the drive to Red Bank, a cultured oyster of a town on the Jersey Shore.

This wasn’t like other restaurant outings in refined destinations. I couldn’t simply ask my wallet for an answer. For this meal, I had to dig deeper, into the recesses of my conscience.

Soul Kitchen, which opened Oct. 19 in a former auto repair shop, is a self-described community kitchen with an American regional flair. Guests are encouraged to pay what they can, which can equate to hard cash (no credit cards accepted) or softer currency (volunteering at the restaurant or an affiliated organization). According to the guidelines, which I fully appreciated, a $10 donation covers the food expenses of one adult. Throw in more and the vestigial change will help defray the costs of another guest’s meal. However, if your wallet is dry, you can opt to volunteer for your dinner. A final option: pay and volunteer.

Now do you understand my dilemma?

Fortunately, I had some time to mull the question. The restaurant serves the trio of traditional courses — appetizer, entree and dessert — plus bread and iced tea. You can also lollygag over tea and coffee and, of course, conversation.

The 30-seat eatery encourages family-style dining, throwing strangers together at large boisterous tables. During my visit in November, however, only a two-top was available, with both seats empty. I checked the door sporadically to see whether Godot or Jon Bon Jovi would stroll in minutes before the last seating at 7 p.m. and plop down in the seat across from me. I set aside a piece of crusty French bread just in case.

As we all know, Godot was a long shot. But not the ’80s rock star. For one, the man who gave spurned lovers the ultimate riposte (“You Give Love a Bad Name”) lives nearby. But more important, Bon Jovi created Soul Kitchen. (Not like he keeps it a secret: The prefix of the restaurant’s name is JBJ.)

The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation contributes to an array of social issues, such as affordable housing, job creation, homeownership and youth shelters. Bon Jovi’s inspiration for Soul Kitchen sprang from a Brian Williams profile of a Denver restaurant called the SAME Cafe (So All May Eat), which practices a charitable form of bartering.

“This is totally different than a soup kitchen,” said Mimi Box, the foundation’s executive director. “It’s a hand-up model, not a hand-down.”

The giving is pervasive. Whole Foods and other local purveyors donate the food, and only two of the staffers are paid. The energetic waiters, attired in T-shirts inscribed with “Hope Is Delicious,” were as warm and comforting as a bowl of chicken soup (or, if you’d rather, butternut squash soup with pumpkin seeds). I felt as if I were at a reunion of AmeriCorps volunteers. (In addition to table service, the volunteers may also prep food, set up the dining room, weed the garden, rake and sweep outside or help out an affiliated organization.)

Between my appetizer course (rainbow beet salad with apples, carrots, spinach and High Point honey dressing) and entree (red beans and rice, which, for meat eaters, accompanied the cornmeal crusted catfish), I asked a waiter with feathery hair and an unflagging smile for his back story. The New Yorker told me that he and his father had dined here a few weeks earlier. They’d paid more than the recommended amount, because they “could afford it.” Driven to do more, though, he signed up to volunteer. He then bounded off to refill a diner’s glass of iced tea.

As the last seating wound down, I watched how the various guests addressed the “bill.” At the table beside me, all four women pulled out $10 and $20 bills and slid them inside the proffered envelope. There was no belabored conversation about how that person drank more than this person or how she ordered the most expensive item and should pay more. It was fairness at its finest, with each person responsible for him- or herself.

After a cup of tea and a cannoli dropped off by a Red Bank bakery (which, in the spirit of giving, I bequeathed to the hostess), I was ready to tackle the bill. Struck by the spirit of Soul Kitchen, I placed $15 in the envelope, then jotted down the e-mail address so I could enlist as a volunteer. I realized that not deciding one way or the other was the best decision.

Soul Kitchen

207 Monmouth St.

Red Bank, N.J.


Open 5-7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; noon-3 p.m. Sunday. Pay what you can; a $10 donation covers meal costs for one adult. Or volunteer for an hour.