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Writing in Restaurants

By Jonathan Dorf

Some writers do their best work hunched over the computers at their desks. Others work in libraries. Or at the beach. But I like nothing better than writing in a restaurant. While some people are terrified at the prospect of dining alone, for me it's a chance to let someone else do the cooking, serve my food and do the dishes while I relax and inhabit my current play or screenplay.

Call me a caveman, but when I write at a restaurant, I don't bring along my laptop. I bring a legal pad and some pens. Here's why: when I write longhand first, the act of transferring to the computer is actually my first round of rewriting. In other words, what I write on my pad gets polished as it goes in. Try it.

Ready to do some eating and writing? I've assembled some of my favorite Los Angeles 'writing' restaurants, added a few of our readers' favorites from around the world and sprinkled on a few writing tips and exercises for dessert. Bon appetit!

Restaurants are full of characters: the patrons, the servers, even the people passing on the street if you're at a window table or sitting outside. Pick one. Already, they have a gender and an age. Look at how they are dressed, the expressions on their faces. Use what you see to create a monologue for them, as if they were characters in a play. They don't have to be in a restaurant, you could move them somewhere else entirely. Don't worry that they have nothing to do with what you're writing -- this is an exercise.

Giovanni's Trattoria, Venice Boulevard at Clarington in Culver City -- Giovanni's is a neat little BYOB with wooden tables and tasty, reasonably priced Italian food. It tends to be pretty quiet on the weekdays for dinner, aside from some background Italian pop music, so Giovanni, the affable owner, will often let me sprawl on one of the larger tables and go to work. The tables for two are plenty roomy for one writer, and Giovanni and his brother, Angelo, are quite interested in what I'm writing and will often come over to chat.

Typhoon, Santa Monica Airport -- Whereas Giovanni's is a great weekday dinner spot, Typhoon is perfect for lunch. Get a window table, eat the Asian fusion cooking and watch the private planes take off and land, and when you're finished eating, go up to the third floor observation deck (bring sunscreen), and keep right on writing.

Nizam, Pico and Westwood Boulevards in West LA -- There's nothing like an all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffet, soothing music from the subcontinent and a charming owner to set your mind at ease. Lots of single diners at lunch, so you'll fit right in.

Palms Thai, Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood -- Home of the singing Thai Elvis, the place stays open until midnight, 2:00AM on Fridays and Saturdays. It can get noisy, but it sure makes for interesting people watching, and I've occasionally sat there for hours, since unlike most LA restaurants, they don't close between lunch and dinner.

Now that you've warmed up your writing muscles by writing a monologue for an observed 'character' from your restaurant, it's time to tackle your play or screenplay. You're going to do one more monologue, and this time, pick one of your REAL characters. But here's the rub: you're not going to write a monologue for them in the context of one of the scenes you've written or planned. In fact, do your best NOT to do that. Just let them go off on any topic you want, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. And you want to know a little secret? There's a very good chance that your seemingly off- topic monologue will end up in your play. Want to know why? Let's hear about a few restaurants from our readers and see how WHERE you are when you're writing can influence WHAT you write.

The Westway Diner, 9th Avenue in Manhattan -- Paul Harris writes that 'I sometimes go there if I have been working at home at 2:00AM (it's open 24 hours) and have apple pie à la mode with a milk shake. Some of my best and clearest thinking happens there.'

Ye Waverly Tavern, Greenwich Village -- Jeffrey Sweet, after finishing the day teaching at the Actors Studio, notes that he's 'clocked significant time in the bar ... nursing a drink while I blast out some prose.'

King Crab, Halsted Street -- Jeffrey Sweet recounts, 'I had an idea I was noodling with, and all of a sudden, the dialogue for an early scene began playing itself in my head. I grabbed a pen and began writing over two beers at the bar. The location probably fed into the scene as the scene, too, took place in a bar, though in one on Key West ... I go back to King Crab whenever I'm in Chicago to make contact with the place where I found a good ten minutes of the play.'

The Unicorn Café (in nearby Evanston)-- Emma tells us, 'Coffee shop with normal coffee-shop foods (hummus plate, panini, baked goods). Local art on walls, unicorn symbol in various places, small tables or a long table where you face the front window, fluorescent adverts for tanning salon and astrologer across street. But what's really special about this place is the people who go there. It's one of those local places where long-haired, goateed beatniks who seem to be independently wealthy sit around all day playing chess, reading or discussing philosophy. There's also the wood-chiseling guy. He's about 65 and earns his living by making wood carvings, which he carves at the café every day. He's the only one they give a tab to because he pays up at the end of the day."

Why did I have you write a monologue that has nothing to do with your plot, or what your characters seem to want? Because often the best writing is the least direct writing. By writing about something different from your plot, you may unconsciously be writing about something in your plot -- but indirectly. For example, two characters arguing about a broken plate may really be fighting about their marriage, or about why their son didn't come home the night before. But rather than come right out and say it, they fight over a plate. As an audience member, it's much more interesting to have to peel back the layers and see what's really going on, rather than sit there passively and be told. In my own play, 'Shining Sea,' Candy tells his companions, Pac and Violet, that something awful is coming, and they need to evacuate their squat. But rather than say it that way, he tells a story about his father insanely mowing the lawn at night when he was a little boy. So the next time you write a scene, try keeping it indirect.

And now, a few more reader restaurant recommendations ...

The Varsity, downtown -- Stephen Meade tells us that 'the main foods are hot dogs and hamburgers, and every day the place is full. There are plenty of chairs and booths. I usually eat and then write or rewrite to my heart's content; no one seems to care or even notice. Governors, Mayors, Presidents all have been to the Varsity.'

Les Amis, near the UT campus -- John Locke informs us that 'it consists of 50% covered patio (stone floor, low ceiling, ceiling fans, and surrounded by shrubbery high enough for a feeling of seclusion, but low enough to allow a view for diversions and ideas), and 50% indoor seating (ceiling to floor glass on three sides, wooden floors and booths, and a wonderful round fireplace in the middle of the room). During the day, it's shady; at night, the light is low, romantic and cozy. Just the perfect amount of light to balance the glow of a laptop. The staff is so laid back you're sometimes inclined to check for a pulse, and they have no qualms with you sitting in a spot all day as long as you buy a cup of coffee every few hours. But go ahead and try the food ... the Peasant's Lunch is especially good.'

NEW LONDON, CT (home of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center)
MUGZ -- Kato writes, 'A restaurant/cool hangout located along the Thames River on Bank Street (just up the road from the train station). It serves some fantastic sandwiches, including some very good vegetarian grill options. They've got funky coffees and teas, have comfortable couches to relax, or good solid tables for more determined work. They also have a deck with a fantastic view of the mouth of the river and Long Island Sound.'

The Dutch Tavern (serves lunch only) -- Another of Kato's faves, 'This pub dates from Revolutionary times. It has a low, tin ceiling, is narrow and has some very old, worn, round wooden tables and a bar that runs the length of the room. Ol' Eugene used to frequent the place and scribble out his columns for the local newspaper while putting back a few pints. That's the local lore, but it is also a quiet, intensely personal and wonderful space. People sit and read a novel or write or play chess there all the time. And the beer is oh- so-fresh on tap. Beer and wine only. I get a lot done there.'

Le Tambour, rue Montmartre -- Gilles tells us, 'It's a great place to write: first, because it's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week ... and 365 days a year! Places like this one are very rare in France ... so, whenever you're in the mood for writing, you'll find a table. Second, this is the only place in Paris where you can have a drink, or even a dinner, while you are borrowing a book (from) the owner. There is a real library in the restaurant. Very interesting when you don't have any ideas left. Third, you can have very interesting discussions with André, the owner. He knows much! Lastly, the place is an authentic Parisian 'bistrot' -- there are few left -- and the food is the best quality and really not expensive. So, hope to see some writers there!'

Bill Weeks enjoys his writing at Hirota's and Kinkabu II, both in Gotemba, Japan.

Drew Briano wrote to us recommending Lotus Neo Tai in Buenos Aires, Argentina

And if you've got a few bucks to spend (it was one of my most peaceful and productive writing retreats ever)... Salishan Lodge, Glenenden Beach, OR -- The view from the dining room of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean is nothing short of stunning. Try writing to that.

Before you leave the restaurant, take a moment to explore. Walk all around and think about the kind of objects and furniture you see. Now go back to your own work and see if you can find the time and opportunity to explore its setting(s) in the same way. Often, it takes physically experiencing a setting to see all of its possibilities.

Now that you've completed your meal, it's time to get up, stretch, walk it off if you need to and then write on!

Meet the Author: Jonathan Dorf

Author of more than 30 published plays with over 1000 productions worldwide, Jonathan Dorf co-founded publisher YouthPLAYS, co-chairs the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and is Final Draft's resident playwriting expert. He created the content for Playwriting101.com, Google's top-ranked playwriting website for over a decade, and teaches playwriting through Screenwriters University. He has served as Visiting Associate Professor in the MFA Playwriting and Children's Lit programs at Hollins University, as United States Cultural Envoy to Barbados and been a guest speaker at schools and festivals ranging from the University of Southern California to the...