the best restaurant of all: cynthia rylant’s van gogh cafe

Why, hello!

Hope you had a grand Christmas. Glad you stopped in. Take a seat while I gently brush the cookie crumbs off your face. Please help yourself to a cup of coffee or tea and some buttermilk pancakes with scrambled eggs, cheddar, ham and green onions.

via pink_fish13

The last week of December is a funny, in-between kind of place. We’re saying goodbye to the old year while gearing up for the new. Pictured above is Vincent van Gogh’s favorite café in Arles, France. He immortalized it in his oil painting, “Café Terrace at Night,” (aka, “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum”).

“Café Terrace at Night” (1888) lives at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.

In a letter to his sister, Van Gogh mentions how pleased he is to do a night painting without the use of black. The golden light from the lantern illuminates the terrace, facade, sidewalk and paving stones. This was the first time he used a starry background in a painting.

When I first read Cynthia Rylant’s beautifully crafted collection of vignettes more than 10 years ago, I didn’t realize there was a real Café Van Gogh. All I knew was that I wanted to visit the cafe she had created in Flowers, Kansas, for hers was a place of magic and miracles — an  obligatory stop for anyone searching for a reason to believe.

Located near I-70, “which people take when they are escaping from an old life in the East to a new life in the West or the other way around,” The Van Gogh Cafe serves up precisely what we need on our way to something new in 2010: sustenance to lift our spirits and a renewed sense of wonder. 

1939 Philco by Eddie Tomecko

In case you’ve never been to Rylant’s cafe, feel free to come in and look around. Don’t you love the sign above the cash register that says, “BLESS ALL DOGS”? I love the smiling porcelain hen atop the pie carousel and the small brown phonograph that plays, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” Can’t forget the “purple hydrangeas painted all over a ladies’ bathroom.”

Have you met Clara and her dad, Marc? They own the cafe, host a friendly group of regulars, and like us, are about to witness some pretty remarkable and mysterious things. The cafe building once housed a theatre, and its walls have absorbed the magic of years and years of opening nights. But that’s only one reason for the magic. It’s also because Clara “is ten and believes anything might happen.”

Possum via Colin Lewis

The sudden appearance of a possum, for example, could lead to people forgiving each other and settling their differences. A grieving widower might even find a way to ease his loneliness. If an aging movie star happened to walk in and wait for hours to be reunited with an old flame, one could pretty much have his/her faith restored in eternal love.

And what if the cafe was struck by lightning? Everything would go a little off kilter, the hen’s smile would be crooked, hats would fall off heads, and best of all, when you opened a can of soup, it would already be hot! In fact, it would stay hot for an entire week! See why I love it here? Marc would suddenly find himself compelled to write poetry on napkins, bills, anything he can find. He wouldn’t have to worry about the food, because it would start to cook itself, and perfectly, too. “Not one burnt crust, not one overcooked egg, everything has just enough salt the first time.”

photo by Alinette

Much to Clara’s delight, lemon meringue pies, something Marc has never baked before, will magically appear. Clara knows all these little signs point to something even bigger happening. It involves a little boy, a lost Siamese cat, and the Moonlight Manor Motel. You probably agree that poetry, like other forms of art, is quite powerful, but Marc’s is even more so, because his verses predict the future.

photo by James R. Page

I’ve loved Cynthia Rylant’s writing ever since her first picture book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, was published in 1982. It’s fair to say her far-reaching, consistently luminous work initially inspired me to write for children, and has encouraged me to press on during fallow periods. In language simple and conversational, in a style spare and unadorned, she’s able to convey the strongest, deepest emotion. By the time The Van Gogh Cafe came out in 1995, she had already won a Newbery Honor for A Fine White Dust (1987) and the Newbery Medal for Missing May (1993). I didn’t think she could possibly top herself, but, like lightning splitting a tree in half, The Van Gogh Cafe “took my head off” with its brilliant artistry.

It’s a slim volume — seven short vignettes that read so easily they catch you by surprise with how eloquently they touch on significant, life-changing themes: the enduring power of love, the presence of the sacred in the everyday, the roots of hope, faith, and above all, the transformational power of art. I need to say that again: “art has the power to transform.” It’s reason enough to keep writing, painting, making music. Sometimes we forget that in our relentless pursuit of “success.”

Chicken by Heather

In the final chapter, a disillusioned writer stops at the Van Gogh Cafe on his way to Oregon. After four years of rejections, he has given up writing and wants to see the gray whales on the West Coast. He’s a good writer, but,

. . . publishers just don’t seem to like his work. They want him to make his stories simpler, so people don’t have to think too much while they are reading. And they would like him to add more excitement, perhaps make someone jump off a bridge. They tell the writer he doesn’t have enough beautiful women and enough beautiful men. They ask him if he’s ever thought about writing a diet book. Diet books sell very well, they say.

But as he sits in the cafe, its magic slowly begins to work on him. He quietly observes everything and is reminded of “what he is and of what he finds beautiful . . . he remembers that the artist for whom this cafe is named sold only one painting in his entire life. And the writer knows that he has a book inside him.”

Van Gogh’s “Night Café” (1888) lives at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Marc is wearing a shirt that says, YES. The writer is fascinated by Clara’s “wide, watchful eyes.” He pats the hen, the phonograph, the pie carousel. The magic of art is that it transforms the person creating it just as much as the person reading, hearing, seeing, experiencing it. When asked about her decision to become a writer, Rylant said:

It wasn’t an obvious talent, it wasn’t piles of poems or short stories which were hints in my childhood that I might be a writer someday. The clues were much more subtle and had something to do with the way I grieved over stray animals, the heroes I chose (a presidential candidate, a symphony orchestra conductor), and the love I had of solitude. It is called sensitivity, this quality which sets creative people apart . . . If they possess only a little-more-than-reasonable amount, they can see into things more deeply than other people and can write or paint or sing what they saw in a way that moves people profoundly.

If you are a little lost on your way to somewhere, The Van Gogh Cafe will help steer you home again, home to your deepest self, your dreams and wishes, with a renewed sense of how the simplest of words, set down in just the right order, can strike a reader’s heart like lightning and stay there forever. It’s “wonderful, like a dream, like a mystery, like a painting, and you ought to go there, they will say, for you will never forget it. You will want to stay, if you can.”

Long before I read this book for the first time, something wonderful happened to me while I was sitting in a restaurant in Reston. I was a newly published writer — no books yet, just a few magazine
pieces — and totally enamoured with all things Cynthia Rylant (as I am now). In between bites of my delicious chicken salad on a croissant, I made mental notes of people around me (I find the best characters in restaurants).

Since it was summer, the restaurant had set up some tables
outside — and sitting at one of them was — no, could it be? The one and only Cynthia Rylant herself! She was laughing and chatting with James Cross Giblin. Iced tea was involved. What I wanted to do: dash outside, tell her how much her writing meant to me, drop to the sidewalk and chant, “I am not worthy.” What I did: stop in mid-chew, stare, internalize the moment. I can’t verify it was actually her with absolute certainty, but the whole thing was surreal, cosmic. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Thus, my fascination with restaurants. A place of magic and possibilities. A mini stage, if you will. A table-laden tableau. That’s why The Van Gogh Cafe is my favorite place, real or imaginary, past or present!

Muffins via Becky

We’ve come to the end of my 2009 Fall for Restaurants series, though I’m sure more cafés, diners, and other fascinating eateries will appear in future posts. I’ve only begun to tap the surface of this delicious theme and want to continue exploring it. Meanwhile, hope you reread The Van Gogh Cafe soon. Marc and Clara have some magic muffins to share with you, along with warm plates loaded with comfort, healing, and love.

♥ Did you know that at age nine, Cynthia Rylant fell in love with Paul McCartney? “The Beatles gave me a childhood of sweetest anticipation. Our country was falling apart with riots and assassinations but the Beatles gave me shelter from these things in their music and in the dreams they caused me to dream.”


Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “the best restaurant of all: cynthia rylant’s van gogh cafe

  1. So, when you open your cafe…
    I’ll come and do a painting of it. Or a sketch or something. Better yet I’ll paint a mural of Paul McCartney on your walls.
    So, when you open your cafe…remember that.


  2. That was his *first* starry night in a painting? Well, who knew? This is my fun fact for the day.
    Love Rylant. Haven’t read that book. Must fix that. Note to self: I know now where to stop for a bite if I’m ever travelling near I-70.


  3. Re: So, when you open your cafe…
    Squee! Paul McCartney mural? Wow. We’ll have to serve Wild Honey Pie at my cafe :). I’ll also have to concoct a “Rich and Famous Artist Sandwich” for the menu . . .


  4. “Rich and Famous Artist Sandwich” for the menu . . .
    A “slattwich?”
    And Strawberry Fields Forever Cheesecake….
    Yellow Submarine Sandwiches….
    For You Blue Berry Pie….
    Baby’s In Black Berry Jam Sandwiches…
    Savoy Truffles…
    Tangerine Tree Treats….
    What a “beatle-licious” menu!!!


  5. Re: “Rich and Famous Artist Sandwich” for the menu . . .
    LOVE your menu suggestions! Are you sure you aren’t a closet chef? Of course we’d ask Paul to provide some live music once in awhile. 😀


  6. Oh, me, too, Jama–I teach with Rylant books, drool over Rylant books, and lovelovelove this one. And how cool that you actually saw her! I also love God is a Beautician (title?) and Boris. Instead of lemon meringue pie, can you have butterscotch meringue?


  7. Nice to know you’re a fellow Rylant fan! Her writing is just so exquisite. I keep wondering how she does it. It seems so effortless.
    Now, what’s this about butterscotch meringue? Sounds intriguing (my father-in-law’s favorite pie used to be butterscotch). Not sure how Clara would feel about it, though :).


  8. This morning’s pathway was very circuitous (the best kind). Annette Simon sends me a link to a post about Melissa and Denis’s Hush Little Monster and happily tells me that Snuggle is mentioned. (Annette knows that I have seriously off-line) Then, I notice that it is your blog. So then I start scrolling down the side links, lingering a bit on Colin, until I notice Favorite Post: Cynthia Rylant’s Van Gogh Cafe which is one of my most favorite books of all time. Then I read your post and I feel connected to you once again, dear Jama. Thank you.


    1. Oh, another Van Gogh Cafe fan! I so LOVE that book!! You are indeed a kindred spirit, and I’ve missed you online. Thanks for stopping in today, Lindsey. Colin thanks you too :).


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