Recently, I visited the 541 Eatery & Exchange  at 541 Barton Street, Hamilton. This is a completely new concept, where the waiting staff are regular customers and who take turns volunteering. Instead of leaving a tip, you can purchase buttons for $1 each and put them in a jar by the cash register. Anyone who can’t afford a meal can use these buttons for their purchase.

The thing I first noticed was the food was cheap and very good. Apparently some budding chefs also donate their time there. I had the Curried potato and leek soup for $2 and the chicken salad sandwich for $4, which were both excellent.

The most interesting thing abut 541 is the clientele, a very mixed group of people. Looked like a range from lawyers in black suits to people that are a little rough around the edges. There was a very clean and fresh, not stuffy, feeling here. More like an open air coffee shop than a restaurant. Maybe because the building looks like one of those old stone banks from the early 20th century, with a very high ceiling and large windows.

Everyone was very friendly – more like a community centre than a restaurant. I made friends with a couple of women who were sitting at the next table from me. After talking for a while, they asked me if there’s anything I’d like them to pray for. Huh? Happens that they’re involved in a religious mission who use the area in the basement of the eatery. Well, world peace was a little too vague for them, so they prayed for my knee and hip joints, right then and there at the table, but quietly! This was actually quite touching.

Looking at their facebook page, I see that there are all kinds of events happening at this place, again – community centre or restaurant? This is a run-down part of Hamilton, (my home-town by the way), but 541, I think, is going a long way towards urban revitalization.

If it wasn’t so far, I know I’d be a regular (get me out of Starbucks more) and I’d definitely consider volunteering.

[click on any photo for slideshow]