(Dave Zoby’s “Café Misfit” appears in issue 37.1–the Spring 2014–issue of The Missouri Review; it received the journal’s 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Best Essay.)
The latest issue of The Missouri Review arrived the other day, and it contains the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize winners. “Café Misfit” by Dave Zoby received the award for Best Essay, a piece that perfectly captures the Old Virginia, a bar and restaurant near Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Zoby worked as the bar manager while in graduate school at VCU.
Though I consider Texas my home state since I lived there from the age of one to the age of twenty-three, I was born in Richmond. So I felt especially drawn to descriptions of my birth home, especially of the food the area provides: catfish from Yorktown; cilantro from LaPrell Nursery; baguettes from Melchers. My mother’s family is from Culpepper, and Zoby describes getting the freshest pork for your roe from a Culpepper farmer’s smokehouse.
Every town or neighborhood has a place for the local outsiders and eccentrics, and the Old Virginia was that place. Joe, the proprietor, puts patrons before profits, much to Zoby’s chagrin as he tries to maintain the business side of his job. This is an essay about characters, the characters who drop in and work at the Old Virginia along with the Old Virginia itself. And then there’s Zoby, who is also searching and finds a temporary dock along with everyone else in the essay.
Some quotations I had to underline while reading:
“They were Italians from Philly: there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration” (42).
“Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically” (49).
“I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic one, to tether them to the world” (52).