The Rev. Lynn Collins is speaking softly into a microphone in a dim corner of Kung Food Express Café in Bankers Hill. Collins, a minister of a religious movement known alternately as "Religious Science" or "Science of the Mind," has an audience of just two, an older couple who look on attentively and nod occasionally.
Other restaurant patrons pass by with trays heaped high with food. Some pause for a moment before making their way to tables on the much-cooler patio, while others don't even seem to hear Collins' hushed tones. She goes on about living a more satisfying life through affirmative prayer.
It's an unusual complement to Kung Food's Sunday vegetarian breakfast buffet. Pancakes, maple syrup, biscuits and gravy, and a modest helping of religion.
Restaurant general manager Mitch Wallis, who opened this latest incarnation of Kung Food last December, endeavors to feed the stomach and the soul. The food is all plant-based, the arts and cultural offerings are all community-driven.
Kung Food has so far faced some resistance when trying to offer more than vegetarian eats-specifically, alcohol and entertainment. Wallis is reticent to discuss warnings Kung Food has received from the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control and the San Diego Police Department. He says he'd rather not fan the flames, and the restaurant is doing its best to stay in compliance.
The problems with both enforcement agencies have to do with permits. In the case of the ABC, Kung Food learned after-the-fact that its beer and wine permit applied only to indoor beverage service, not to the front patio. Its liquor license was pulled for a week as a warning.
The local police also visited Kung Food after a tipster complained that the restaurant didn't have a city permit to host events such as art shows, music concerts and poetry readings. One poetry reading was actually shut down mid-show.
Wallis has since read up on city codes, and now tries to stay within the allowed exemptions. For instance, if a show supports a nonprofit organization, no permit is needed, he says. A current exhibit of found art sculptures by Antonia Davis benefits an AIDS charity called the Power of Love Foundation.
Other recent cultural events have included a Vegas-style music performance by an artist who actually refers to himself as Prince, and a film showing and reading to commemorate the works of the late Hunter S. Thompson.
The Rev. Collins' Sunday sermons during the month of August focused on "celebrating spiritual community." The programs included music, readings and meditation.
Wallis says he's inspired by the idea of offering art and culture with healthy food. At what other San Diego venue can you see a live performance and nosh on something other than warm beer and hot dogs?
He suspects Kung Food's customers aren't all strict vegetarians, but mostly folks who just want the occasional vegetarian alternative. The ingredients at Kung Food are often organic and locally grown, he says. The kitchen staff creates recipes devoid of chemical preservatives, dyes, white flour or refined sugars.
"If it grows in the ground, we serve it. If it doesn't grow in the ground, we don't serve it. We don't serve a byproduct or any amount of it-not a drop. If it doesn't grow in the ground, it's not on our menu. It doesn't enter our premises."
The restaurant, on Fifth Avenue at Quince Street, has, since the 1980s, been alternately Kung Food or The Vegetarian Zone under various owners. It was boarded up for three years until its recent return. The latest version is buffet-style rather than sit-down. Patrons can buy food by the pound, rather than by the entrée, or grab from a deli case of prepackaged sandwiches and pastries.
A future fast-food window will make Kung Food the first vegetarian drive-through in the nation, Wallis says.
"The interesting thing is, we have a number of folks from the old days, the old Kung Food, the old Vegetarian Zone. They come in, and some of them are not happy. We don't have waiters; we don't have some of the exact same dishes that they used to love in the old days," says Wallis. "So even though we're Kung Food, and we used to be here for many years, and the community really, really loved Kung Food, we've made a lot of changes-so we're really actually starting all from scratch."
The artwork displays and performances are just as organic as the food. Wall art is changed out monthly, and any local performer can reserve time on the Kung Food floor.
Wallis says food is the easiest way for people to influence their health and get closer to nature. By feeding customers one of the meals they'll eat that day, and perhaps offering intellectual stimulation on the side, Kung Food is a conduit for healthful living, he says.
"The goal is to be a pipeline for Mother Nature to the urban culture. The most efficient way of channeling nature is through food."