Could this be what Mary Baker Eddy had in mind when she established her church in 1879? Apparently Church elders thought so and have doubled down on their past success with Christian Science Reading Rooms by introducing Christian Science Eating Rooms. I was curious about this ecumenical eatery and spoke with Comestible Services Director Harley Karnoff, who explained the Church’s marketing philosophy; “We hope to appeal to Christian Foodies everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Quaker or a Shaker, Orthodox or Hydrox, Plain or Peanut – the Christian Science Eating Room has a pew for you. Even atheists are welcomed, although they usually come away with a little indigestion.”
The venture is not without controversy as the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) has bluntly reminded the Church of their place in the economic hierarchy: “Look, you peddle God and we peddle grub. Got it? It’s a little thing called ‘Separation of Church and Steak’.” They went on to candidly instruct this hybrid churchateria; “Hasn’t anyone ever told you – you don’t pray where you eat” (the NRA actually substituted a more colorful expression for the word for “pray.”).
So it was with a dash of curiosity and a pinch of trepidation that my wife Karin and I decided to dine at a recently opened Christian Science Eating Room in the Snob Hill section of San Francisco. One Tuesday evening, with Karin and I both hungering for spiritual sustenance, we took BART to the city – not the train, but a Lyft driver named BART who actually capitalized each letter of his name. Reservations were not required although I developed a few upon entering this Jesus-themed bistro. It’s all open pew seating so there’s never a wait for an altar. If you prefer something a bit more confessional, you can pay a few mammon more to reserve a fully enclosed private booth with a small sliding pass-through window. However you do have to pre-order your meal before entering the booth because, by Canon Law, the waitress is forbidden from repeating anything you say once you’re inside.
We were irked by a hidden fee that was never mentioned in the program. Because we knew it would be chilly in this high-ceilinged cathedral, we thought it might be a good idea to bring a little blanket. The maître d’ intercepted us at our pew and said there would be a $5 cover charge for the blanket. A cover charge for a blanket? “How absurd,” we huffed as we sat in a church, waiting to order food. The cover charge appeared on our bill as a “$5 Woobie Convenience Fee.”
Eating Room patrons or “congregants” are seated quickly on comfortably padded, hardback wooden pews. And while the seating was theme-appropriate, Karin did not appreciate the aromatic curls of smoke emanating from the Deacon’s Pantry. In fact she was incensed by the incense. I, however, enjoyed the candlelit ambience, but the decorative motif was a bit heavy on the crucifixes and put a damper on my skewered shrimp appetizer.
The restrooms, as expected, were immaculate. Cleanliness really was next to godliness. You could pray off the floors and I was assisted in doing so by a charismatic attendant whom I later discovered was not an employee of the Church. To avoid confusion the restroom doors are labeled Men and Rib.
This Christian Science Eating Room featured a variety of traditional Biblical foods such as manna, Frankincense Fricassee and of course, Apples. I should explain: Apples were offered to patrons, but only as a reminder that you shouldn’t be tempted by them. You could also order heirloom tomatoes, but you weren’t allowed to eat them because, being heirlooms, they’re passed down to the next generation of diners.
Word of mouth from some of our snootier friends extolled the delectability of 2 must-eat dishes: The Slow-Roasted Heretic and the Myrrh-Battered Chicken. We were uncomfortable ordering either of them until it was explained The Slow-Roasted Heretic was just grilled quail and the Myrrh-Battered Chicken was ethically sourced from sustainable, free-range sanctuaries for battered fowl.
Their signature grilled Panini is a guilty pleasure. Much guiltier than I realized, as I was told its preparation involved being “slowly stoned over a hot grill until it changed its views on same sex marriage.” Overall the fare, as you might expect, was divine. We started with the Peas Be With You soup. What it lacked in bellicosity, it more than made up for in tranquility (the Panini wasn’t the only thing that was stoned that evening). When the waitress (dressed in nun’s garb) returned and inquired how I enjoyed the soup, I couldn’t help myself and blurted, “And peas be with you too sister.”
Our portly chef was resplendent in a crisply pressed clergy toque spattered with what I hoped was tomato sauce. He ceremoniously emerged from the kitchen and graced us with his fatuous eminence (he appeared to be morbidly obtuse). We were obliged to stand while he pontificated on the nature of Béarnaise Sauce – a sauce he was serving that night on something called Chilean Sea Carp. He rhapsodized about another dish he said was “perfect whether you’re feeding 2 or 2000.” It consisted of 5 loaves and only 2 fish. It would take a miracle to feed 2000 people on a scant 5 loaves and a measly 2 fish. But, according to our chef, “It’s been done once before.”
In attempts to please true believers who interpret the menu literally and may prefer more traditional fare, this Christian Science Eating Room featured some Older Testament cuisine. A fire and brimstone favorite of the Creationist set is the Serpent Surprise. Its preparation is a beautifully staged theatrical event. In much the same way some seafood restaurants allow you to select your own lobster from an in-house tank; when ordering Serpent Surprise you are conducted downstairs into the church’s catacombs by a devilishly handsome guy carrying a trident in one hand and a lantern in its tail. Once established in these eerie environs you select your serpent from a pit of vipers adjacent to a human pillar of salt. Your selection is then summarily beheaded and plated by a church sexton dressed in period executioner’s attire.
We passed on this one. Instead I thought I’d play it safe by ordering the Liver and Onions. I was disappointed when the gravy lake in my mashed potatoes leaked all over the plate and metastasized to my liver. Now I had to deal with a Stage IV metastatic entrée which I bravely choked down without complaint. It was a miserable experience at the time, but just like church, I felt great later. Karin had a sinfully delicious Pizza Magdalene.
And while they excelled at savory dishes, the desserts were limited and bipolar – Angel Food or Devil’s Food cake. A tad predictable, but what do you expect from a place where the busboy wears a terry cloth robe cinched at the waist with drapery tassels. Beverages include sacramental wines and bottled Holy Water imported from Fresno. When the food is brought to your altar, you can bless it yourself or have the wait staff bless what you are about to receive. Those congregants who don’t like what’s on the regular menu can choose individual items for their meal from a display case. These diners are known as Cafeteria Christian Scientists
At the end of the meal instead of a traditional check you’re served a final plate – a collection plate – where you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. They used to just pass the hat, but the Church’s money changers realized they weren’t always getting back the same hat they started with.
When dining at any Christian Science Eating Room I recommend taking both the food and the scripture with a grain of salt. They’re more easily digested that way. This witty “bats in the belfry bistro” is a delightful smash-up of God and Grub. It’s as if Mother Theresa and Bobby Flay had kids who decided to go into the restaurant business. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and give the place 4 crosses. I would’ve given them 5, but 4 crosses are already too much to bear. And judging from my first supper there, I can definitely say it won’t be my last supper either.