It started with muffins.
I ate my way through Maggie’s peanut butter bar years and her dive into doughnuts.
I sampled the falafel wrap and the roasted veggie melt, I dabbled in frittatas and black-bean casseroles, devoured nut-meat tacos, veggie pizzas drizzled with balsamic, homemade soups and tofu salads and chocolate chip cookies.
But most of the time, I favored the three-cheese wrap, a gooey mess of goodness served on a brightly-colored plastic plate, garnished with a swirl of roasted red-pepper dressing.
Restaurants come and restaurants go and I’ve mourned many of them in my time. And now, after 17 years of wholesome and heavenly local food prepared in a tiny kitchen in the Haymarket, the end of Maggie’s Vegetarian Cafe.
So many memories are wrapped up in the eateries I’ve loved and lost, their associations to time and place and people nearly overshadowing the meals they served.
Kuhl’s downtown, where I slid in the vinyl booths for breakfast with my Granny and Popo.
The Legion Club, where I danced with my dad.
Lange family birthday outings at the Underground — flaming baked Alaskas arriving at our table like fireworks in September.
Pho Tau Bay for working-mom lunches with my friend Lynn.
And Maggie’s for cribbage.
Since 2000, when a young restaurateur named Maggie Pleskac opened her doors, I walked three blocks from the newsroom to Eighth Street nearly every week to meet my friend Stan Krause. My card-playing companion, who occasionally showed up in camo, ready to go hunting after we finished our meat-free fare.
We made an odd couple. The lifetime NRA member and the liberal columnist. The squirrel hunter and the squirrel lover.
But we rarely argued politics or dietary habits — although when Stan would begin to gab about his latest recipe for the annual Squirrel Cook Off in Arkansas, or how poorly his stock portfolio performed during the Obama years, I’d shut my ears. (Or pull out a post-2008 stock market graph.)
Instead of bickering, we played four games of cribbage between bites, relishing the plates in front of us, a mutual love of Maggie’s food and card games binding us.
We took turns footing the bill.
We ate our cookies first.
We sat at the square table against the wall, under the photos of local farmers who supplied Maggie with her produce and cheese.
We marked beginnings and endings at Maggie’s. Love and love lost. The births of my two grandbabies — the growing-up of his. We kept meeting when neither of us really felt like it — Stan worrying over his son’s cancer or hobbling with a cane, stricken by a new ailment. Me stressed about deadlines.
We took a hiatus the year Stan was hit by a speeding driver while he crossed 27th Street on his bicycle. When we resumed, he joked that his brain injury messed with his short-term memory, so he wouldn’t know the difference if I told him it was his turn to pay every week.
I never took the bait.
We lunched through the seasons, welcomed by Maggie's friendly staff.
I watched Stan’s baby Lilly turn into a teenager. He watched my kids leave home, graduate college, old enough for business cards and mortgages.
We watched Maggie fall in love. We mourned when her husband, Pat Clinch, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and we grieved for her when he died.
Those last years, Maggie was busy raising their two girls and we rarely saw her during our lunch-hour dates. But when she popped in, it was like she'd never left the counter. The same Maggie, dedicated to feeding us, happy when we were happy.
We were at our table the day the cafe celebrated 17 years and gave away free Maggie’s T-shirts to its first 17 customers. Stan took his shirt on vacation and posed for photos, holding it all across the desert Southwest. (The XL didn’t quite cover his girth. Sorry, Stan.)
When Maggie announced she was closing shop, we tried for one last lunch but we couldn’t find a day that worked for both of us.
That was bittersweet.
But it seemed meant to be, too.
That our last lunch — the cards and the camaraderie, the chocolate chip cookie appetizers followed by Stan’s soup and my melting-cheese wrap — was unencumbered by emotion.
Just good food with a good friend at a place we both loved for so long.