A little before nine o’clock on Tuesday night, Antonio Gutiérrez found himself facing a welcome dilemma. Might he, a waitress asked, have room for a second helping of pudding?
Gutiérrez, who had already seen off a plate of pasta, a fish stew and a slice of cake, gave it some thought. The option would have been unremarkable for most diners, but for him, it was entirely novel – as was the cafe in which he was eating.
By day, the Robin Hood restaurant, which sits on a side street near the centre of Madrid, is a typical Spanish bar: coffee and croquetas, a fruit machine, cigarette machine, and a leg of ham dozing under a tea towel on the counter.
But at night, it transforms itself into a pioneering place where homeless people such as Gutiérrez, 40, from Extremadura, can dine, free of charge, at tables set with flowers, metal cutlery and proper glasses.
The restaurant is the latest initiative from the charity Mensajeros de la Paz – meaning messengers of peace – which was founded 54 years ago by Father Ángel García Rodríguez.
Its business model – using breakfast and lunch takings from paying customers to fund free evening meals for the homeless – is simple enough. Its aim, however, is a little more ambitious.
“The inspiration came from Pope Francis, who’s spoken again and again about the importance of giving people dignity, whether it’s through bread or through work,” said Father Ángel.
“So we thought, why not open a restaurant with tablecloths and proper cutlery and waiters? People with nothing can come and eat here in the restaurant and get the same treatment as everyone else. It’s just common sense.”
Like many Spanish charities, Mensajeros de la Paz is still dealing with the human consequences of the country’s financial crisis, which has left the overall unemployment rate close to 20% and youth unemployment among Europe’s highest at 42%.
Each day, Father Ángel’s nearby church-cum-social centre provides 200 homeless people with breakfast and lunch. In the evening, the new restaurant will feed 100 homeless people in two sittings.
If the initiative proves successful, the NGO plans to extend the scheme and hopes it will attract famous chefs who will give up the odd evening to come to cook in the kitchen.