Spain's 'Robin Hood Restaurant' Charges The Rich And Feeds The Poor

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on January 26, 2017 6:06 pm

On a frigid winter night, a man wearing two coats shuffles into a brightly lit brick restaurant in downtown Madrid. Staff greet him warmly; he's been here many times. The maître d' stamps his ID card, and the hungry man selects a table with a red tablecloth, under a big brass chandelier.

The man, Luis Gallardo, is homeless — and so are all the diners, every night, at the city's Robin Hood restaurant. Its mission is to charge the rich and feed the poor. Paying customers at breakfast and lunch foot the bill for the restaurant to serve dinner to homeless people, free of charge.

It's become Spain's most sought-after lunch reservation. The restaurant has poached staff from luxury hotels. Celebrity chefs are lining up to cook once a week. For paying clients, the lunch is fully booked through the end of March.

The restaurant opened in early December, and is run by an 80-year-old Catholic priest, Ángel García Rodriguez, whom everyone knows simply as "Padre Ángel."

"I want them to eat with the same dignity as any other customer," Father Ángel says. "And the same quality, with glasses made of crystal, not plastic, and in an atmosphere of friendship and conversation."

Outside, there's a sign listing the house rules: Patrons are allowed to sing as they please, as long as it doesn't disturb other customers. They can use the free wifi and borrow a cell phone if they need to make a call. They're free to bring their own food and order only drinks, if they prefer. Or they can take over the kitchen for a birthday party or other special celebration.

As founder of Messengers of Peace, a local charity, Padre Ángel has also converted an abandoned church nearby into a sort of community center. It's the only church in Madrid that's open 24 hours a day — with free coffee, television and places for patrons to sleep. He or a colleague celebrates Mass there daily.

On the night NPR visited, the Robin Hood waiters served mushroom consommé, followed by roast turkey and potatoes. For dessert, there's a choice of vanilla pudding or yogurt.

Gallardo, the man in two coats, says the meal reminds him of Christmases past, before the accounting firm he ran went bankrupt and he had to lay off 60 employees. He shows NPR some photos on his cell phone of a dining table holding a huge spread of sweets and a bottle of French wine. He says the photos were taken two years ago at his home, which he has since had to sell to pay debts.

"We were just like any other family," says Gallardo, 48, shaking his head. His wife has now left him.

He lives on the street now, sleeping in ATM machine alcoves.

As for his future, he says: "My future is now. I can't even talk about tomorrow. I'd like to know, but I don't what it holds."

Spain's economy may be out of recession, but its effects are lingering. Unemployment still hovers near 20 percent. The Robin Hood Restaurant feeds more than 100 needy people each night, in two shifts.

Back in the kitchen, the restaurant's dishwasher has just broken down. A volunteer plunges her hands into the sink and starts washing plates by hand.

"Some of our diners are very educated, and some are a bit ashamed to be here," says Nieve Cuenca, a retiree who comes to help out in the kitchen once a week.

"I love this work. It's the best thing I've ever done in my life," she says, elbow-deep in soapy water.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The most sought-after lunch reservation in Spain these days is not at an expensive Michelin-starred restaurant. It's at a small, brick building in Madrid run by a priest. It's called the Robin Hood Restaurant, and here's its philosophy. Charge the rich to feed the poor. Reporter Lauren Frayer went there.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Maria Vizuete polishes silver for tonight's dinner service. She worked as a waitress at the luxury Ritz Hotel before becoming the maitre d' of this slightly simpler restaurant for the homeless.

MARIA VIZUETE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: She reads out tonight's menu, mushroom consomme, followed by roast turkey and potatoes. For dessert, there's vanilla pudding or yogurt. One of the homeless diners, Luis Gallardo, comes in wearing two coats. It's below freezing outside. But he says this meal reminds him of Christmas. He pulls out his cellphone...

LUIS GALLARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: ...To show me photos of a holiday spread at his home two years ago laden with sweets and a bottle of French wine. "We were just like any other family," he says.

GALLARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Gallardo says he used to run an accounting firm with 60 employees. But it went bankrupt in Spain's economic crisis.

GALLARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: He had to sell his house to pay his debts. His wife left him.

(Speaking Spanish).

GALLARDO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Gallardo lives on the street now, and so do all the other diners tonight at the Robin Hood Restaurant, which has a bit of a different business model. Paying customers at breakfast and lunch foot the bill for the restaurant to reopen each night as a soup kitchen for the homeless. The man behind all this is an 80-year-old Catholic priest, Angel Garcia Rodriguez, known as Padre Angel.

ANGEL GARCIA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "I want them to eat with the same dignity as any other customer," he says. "And the same quality, with glasses made of crystal, not plastic, in an atmosphere of friendship and conversation."

He smooths the tablecloths as he makes rounds of the restaurant, shaking hands with diners. He wants to bring in celebrity chefs to cook once a week. Padre Angel also says mass daily at the only church in Madrid that's open 24 hours a day, with free coffee and space for some of these patrons to sleep.

NIEVES CUENCA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: (Speaking Spanish).

CUENCA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Back in the kitchen, the restaurant's dishwasher has just broken down. Nieves Cuenca, of the volunteers who helped run this place, is washing plates by hand.

CUENCA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Some of our diners are very educated, and some are a bit ashamed to be here," she says. "Volunteering here is the best thing I've ever done in my life."

CUENCA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Spain's economy may be out of recession, but unemployment is still near 20 percent. And the Robin Hood Restaurant feeds more than 100 needy people each night. But for every mouth to feed, turns out there are even more people who want to help. Lunch reservations for paying customers are booked solid through the end of March. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.