Writing Activity: Describe A Restaurant, Café or Eatery

In this activity you will practice creative writing skills by writing a fictional scene which takes place in some kind of eating establishment: a restaurant, café, milk bar, fast food joint, Saturday morning market, street vendor… Any sort of eatery will do.

The first task is to simply imagine a scene. I recommend limiting the cast to two (main) characters at the table/in dialogue with each other, though other characters will likely populate the story, serving the food, sitting at nearby tables and so on.

PRE-WRITING QUESTIONS

SETTING
  • What kind of eatery is this? (High end, fast-food, market vendor?)
  • Is it an interior or exterior scene? (Indoors or outdoors?)
  • Night or day? Which meal/snack are they eating?
  • What’s the lighting like?
  • Is this the sort of place you need to book in advance? Is it popular or almost out of business? Perhaps it has a cult-patronage, known by only a few?
  • Perhaps there are two parts to this place: The Potemkin restaurant, and another part, perhaps behind a door or down a trapdoor/fantasy portal?
  • If indoors, how high is the ceiling? What can they see out the window? Are they upstairs or downstairs? In a mall or food court?
  • If outdoors, what is the view from here? Are they on a roof/mountain or other high place? Underground? At street level? What is the weather like?
  • Which era is this story set?
  • Is this in the real world? If so, which country? Which town?
  • Rural, suburban or city?
  • Even if this is a fantasy setting some of those questions still apply. Plus: How is this world different from our real world?
  • What year is it set, approximately? (Historical, contemporary, futuristic?)
  • What’s the lighting like?
  • Is this a noisy place? Is the noise pleasant/calming/grating? Can patrons hear anything coming from the kitchen/outside? Is music playing?
  • What does the restaurant smell like? (Probably food, but be specific. Perhaps it smells of something unlikely, e.g. the overwhelming perfume of a patron at the next table; pungent fumes coming from under the kitchen door…)
A bustling but cosy inn by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987)
CHARACTERS
  • How old are the main characters?
  • What are their genders?
  • Have these characters met before? How?
  • Do they like each other? If not, why not? Are they attracted to/repelled by each other in any way? (Both at once?)
  • Aside from eating and drinking, what is the reason for the visit to an eatery How do their goals conflict?
  • Did they arrive together?
  • How did each of them arrive? (On foot, by horse and carriage, by Mercedes Benz?)
  • Who arrived first? Were they both punctual?
  • Does one character like the food at this place more than the other person?
  • What are they wearing?
  • What is their wealth? (Does one have more resources?)
  • What are their basic political leanings? (Conservative, liberal, don’t care?)
  • Might the waitstaff/vendor play a role in this story? How might they conflict? (A trickster as waitstaff might be interesting.)
  • Is anyone supernatural? Is this obvious or masked?
  • Do any identities become unmasked over the course of this scene?
  • Is anyone suspicious sitting/lurking nearby?
  • Can characters hear any conversation at nearby tables?
POSSIBLE SCENARIOS
  • a first date
  • stood up for a date
  • a break-up
  • a confrontation
  • a thank-you
  • a celebration
  • reuniting after a long time apart
  • planning a crime
  • seeking refuge after committing a crime
  • looking for another individual who is known to frequent this place
  • an informal job interview
  • scouting for someone to do a task, join a cult, do a particular job
  • one person persuading the other to keep quiet after they’ve been found out in some wrong-doing
THE MENU

Food may be a major part of the scene, or else not play much part at all. You might use food to illuminate character, or the food ‘might be a character in its own right’. Or it may be symbolic.

  • What do the characters order?
  • Do they like what comes out?
  • Does it look appetizing or disgusting?
  • Does it taste how it looks?
  • Does one character have food envy?
  • Is there anything wrong with the food?
  • Do they order drinks? Alcoholic?
  • Do the characters have strong preferences when it comes to food and drink?
  • How do the characters eat the food? With trepidation? With gusto?
  • Does each character have a similar etiquette background, or are their table manners quite different?
  • Can you exaggerate the food in some way? Make it super big, super small or otherwise memorable?

SHORT STORY EXAMPLES

‘A café scene’ can be an entire short story:

  • In “The Reunion” by John Cheever, a father takes his son to a restaurant, treats people badly and the son realises what an unpleasant man his father really is.
  • In “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield, a woman reunites with an old beau, perhaps wondering if they can give it another go. But the guy is insufferable.
  • In “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (a short story recommended by Stephen King and Dorothy Parker alike), Hemingway takes gangsters and humanises them by placing them in the familiar environment of a lunchroom. “The Killers” is a clear ancestor of stories such as The Sopranos. (We are now accustomed to humanised criminals in storytelling.)

ART INSPIRATION

One of the most famous paintings of an eatery must be Nighthawks at the Diner by Edward Hopper.

Nighthawks — Edward Hopper’s most iconic painting.

Hopper was excellent at depicting loneliness.

Edward Hopper Nighthawks detail

And here’s a picture of a nighthawk (bird), in case anyone was wondering:

Bird Biographies A Guide-Book for Beginners by Alice Eliza Ball (1867-1948) Illustrated by Robert Bruce Horsfall (1869-1948) New York Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1923 nighthawk
EATING INSIDE
EATING AL FRESCO
PUBS AND BARS

FURTHER READING

Header illustration: 1959 Leisurely Lunch Saturday Evening Post art by George Hughes