A Multicultural Fable

A Multicultural Fable

The River District was known as the place to go for dinner. Within a compact area of about six blocks were dozens of excellent restaurants of every variety. Most people would just park on the street and walk around, looking at the menus posted outside, until they found one that struck their fancy. Choices ranged from formal to casual, expensive to cheap, heavy to lighter fare.

The real attraction, however, was the ethnic variety. Dozens of national and regional cuisines were present, thrown together in no particular order, the distinctive music and aromas of each pouring out into the street. The fanciest French restaurant in town was around the corner from a Mexican café with an outdoor patio. Two doors down was a newer Ethiopian restaurant, right next to an Italian one that had been an institution in the neighborhood for years. Its more expensive and trendy rival across the street specialized in North Italian dishes and had the city’s most extensive wine cellar. The street that featured three small storefront establishments—Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese—drew those in the mood for Asian food. But getting there meant passing two barbeque joints, one Texas-style, one North Carolina-style, the smell of which frequently drew people in no matter what they came for.

People liked to joke about how the neighborhood made for strange combinations: the Jewish delicatessen catty-corner from the Iranian place, the sushi bar down the street from the Cajun joint serving blackened seafood. The most unique neighbors were probably the Chicago-style steakhouse advertising the thickest cuts in the district and the Indian restaurant featuring strictly vegetarian dishes right next door.

Almost all the restaurants were owned and operated by families that originally came from the region whose food they served. It was their food and they were proud to prepare it and share it. Confused diners could always count on the waiter or waitress, usually a younger relation of the owners, to explain how a dish was prepared. When patrons passed the kitchen, they could hear the cooks yelling at each other in their native language.

The River District had been like this for many years, and most people just took it for granted. But then complaints began to be heard. People said that the individual restaurants in the district were not inclusive enough. The Italian ones served only Italian food, the Chinese ones only Chinese food, and so on. People complained that the menus didn’t give them a range of choices: they featured only one culture instead of being truly diverse. This was a particular problem for larger groups of diners. Different people wanted to eat different kinds of food, and no matter what restaurant the group ultimately decided on, someone would be excluded. More important, diners pointed out that most of the restaurants did not serve food that represented their (the diners’) distinctive culture. This made it difficult for them to...