A little before nine o’clock on Tuesday night, Antonio Gutiérrez found himself facing a welcome dilemma. Might he, a waitress asked, have room for a second helping of pudding?
Gutiérrez, who had already seen off a plate of pasta, a fish stew and a slice of cake, gave it some thought. The option would have been unremarkable for most diners, but for him, it was entirely novel – as was the cafe in which he was eating.
By day, the Robin Hood restaurant, which sits on a side street near the centre of Madrid, is a typical Spanish bar: coffee and croquetas, a fruit machine, cigarette machine, and a leg of ham dozing under a tea towel on the counter.
But at night, it transforms itself into a pioneering place where homeless people such as Gutiérrez, 40, from Extremadura, can dine, free of charge, at tables set with flowers, metal cutlery and proper glasses.
The restaurant is the latest initiative from the charity Mensajeros de la Paz – meaning messengers of peace – which was founded 54 years ago by Father Ángel García Rodríguez.
Its business model – using breakfast and lunch takings from paying customers to fund free evening meals for the homeless – is simple enough. Its aim, however, is a little more ambitious.
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“The inspiration came from Pope Francis, who’s spoken again and again about the importance of giving people dignity, whether it’s through bread or through work,” said Father Ángel.
“So we thought, why not open a restaurant with tablecloths and proper cutlery and waiters? People with nothing can come and eat here in the restaurant and get the same treatment as everyone else. It’s just common sense.”
Like many Spanish charities, Mensajeros de la Paz is still dealing with the human consequences of the country’s financial crisis, which has left the overall unemployment rate close to 20% and youth unemployment among Europe’s highest at 42%.
Each day, Father Ángel’s nearby church-cum-social centre provides 200 homeless people with breakfast and lunch. In the evening, the new restaurant will feed 100 homeless people in two sittings.
If the initiative proves successful, the NGO plans to extend the scheme and hopes it will attract famous chefs who will give up the odd evening to come to cook in the kitchen.
“‘Man does not live on bread alone,’ but the Bible forgot that some people don’t even have bread,” said Father Ángel, 79. “So we’re trying to give them bread.”
The priest acknowledges that there may be something a little provocative in naming the restaurant after a figure who redistributed wealth at the tip of an arrow and the point of a sword. But the idea is less to rob the rich than to encourage them to share their good fortune.
“The name is just to spice it up a bit and to get people to notice. We could have called it ‘The Brothel’ and I’m sure that would have got people’s attention, too.”
Around the packed tables of the restaurant on Tuesday for its opening night, the talk was less of legendary outlaws and more about the excellent fish course.
“The food here is great and very elegant,” said Ramón Luis. “I’d give it loads of stars and I’ll be back tomorrow.”
For Carmen Junquito, the tablecloths and crockery made a welcome change to the soup kitchen sandwiches she normally had for dinner. “This restaurant is life and happiness to me,” she said. “It’s the best thing there is; the best thing in the world.”
Gutiérrez, who has been homeless for a decade, had not eaten in such a restaurant for four or five years – except when Father Ángel had taken him out.
“If you don’t have anything, this means a lot,” he said.
After a few seconds’ deliberation, he ordered another piece of cake.