Restaurant dining can be viewed in a couple of different ways. There is the elaborate theatricality of the casual fine-dining/fine-dining experience: service staff glide through the dining room, sometimes in ensembles of two or three, setting places, explaining courses, resetting and clearing. It’s practiced, formal, and seductive, much like a geisha’s dance. Customers are led through a series of gates, composed and orchestrated by chefs and maitre-d’s. It’s synchronicity and complexity guide the diner toward satisfaction and elation. Appropriately executed, the customer is mesmerized by the efficiency and attention to detail, the appearance of effortlessness, and, finally, they have bought the illusion: their mind is led away from the hard work of dinner, the excruciating hours, and the habits and personalities responsible for its execution. The diner is sitting on a cloud.
And there is another way: a counter with a till posted beside the wall-mounted menu, seven tables, all served by a single person; the visible door into the kitchen swings with food running to the table, sometimes by the chef himself. Staffing is bare-bones, and their personalities and visible hard-work are the bones the restaurant hangs on. The diner hears a club banger from the speakers in the front, and another one from the kitchen when the door is open. This kind of small business is a place people come to eat because it is real: there are no illusions here. One owner tells you about their financial woes in the front; the chef steps out to see if people are still enjoying their food. Obviously, more could be done to make this place fancier, but it always comes down to time and money and there is barely enough of either. The diner establishes solidarity with the restaurateur, they see how hard they work – they like the earnestness of their personalities and how hard they are trying.
Places like this grow on quality, accountability and word-of-mouth. They seem to hang on just by the thread of their efforts. Laohaus is such a place, and it’s owned by two such figures: Chris and Charlie Sananikone. Between the two of them they make up about 80% of the labour of Laohaus.
The hard-working pair have modestly built a cult-following with chefs, actors, and Stratford’s own residents that swear by their food. Chris says all of the time: “It’s about the food. I mean, it’s about eating. A lot of food these days is about just a taste. Give them just a taste. Just a taste. Fuck that – it’s about eating! I want to sit down and eat a meal, not just a taste.”
A customer walks into Lauhaus and vibes with it or doesn’t based on how much they vibe with its owners. From the back of the sparse dining room, lined up with a pair of church pews, a large sound set up booms out a hot rap record. A sign by the register says: IN THE BACK RING THE BELL A LOT. In a town that turns its dollar on pandering to the crowds of largely aging tourists, the decision to be nothing but themselves is risky: the split judgment of whether something matches expectations of “a nice time in Stratford” is all that’s between filling seats and struggling in many businesses. But that’s also the difference that sets Laohaus apart: customers are made to feel under the care and supervision of Chris and Charlie because they actually are. You’re vibing with them vibing with the food and atmosphere they love. You’re at their restaurant, but it’s like you’re at their house.