Everyone comes to Monique's

Ever been to Café Monique? It’s easily the coolest place in town for coffee and a nice meal. Of course, you’ve probably never been there, because “town” is a tiny coastal village in Cha-Am, Thailand – a pleasant enough area, with hotels and nice beaches.

A few of us have been here for the past two weeks with Sri Chinmoy’s Christmas trip. As I write this, I am having my last meal at Café Monique: a green tofu curry and rice (with extra chilli, to help combat a cold I’m somehow suffering), with a fresh mango juice and a cappuccino. The curry is a recent addition to the menu, added when the manager (whom I believe really is named Monique, though she’s never set foot outside Thailand) decided to cater for the onslaught of vegetarians who suddenly descended on her village two weeks ago. Indeed, she prepared a special “Sri Chinmoy Menu”. Tomorrow, when we all leave for the next venue and the next adventure, I imagine she’ll discard that menu… and she’ll miss us (though she’ll be happy with the relative peace and quiet that our departure brings).

A few of us have been talking about Café Monique as Cha-Am’s answer to Lucille’s – a place to which, strictly speaking, it bears no resemblance. Lucille’s Diner is a classic, all-American, 24-hour diner in Queens, New York, situated not far from the main action of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Frequented by so many of Sri Chinmoy’s international students, it eventually devised an extensive (four-page) vegetarian menu. That was 20 years ago – and I was still able to look through that menu a few months ago to choose between eggplant parmesan and spaghetti with vegetarian “meatballs”.

In most of the places where we have stopped for Christmas trips for a week, two weeks, a month, we seem to have found a “place to be” (or a few such places). Though few places go to the extent of a special vegetarian menu, they get to know us. But unlike the good folk at Lucille’s, we leave them after a few weeks.

Think of your favourite restaurants, the ones that you have visited for years… and the places you have visited only a few times on a visit to a foreign land, but remembered forever. Good food is said to be the greatest joy in the world (even better than watching 'Heroes'), and even more joy comes from seeking out the best eating places.