Mixed crowd: Lentil As Anything, Newtown.
Mixed crowd: Lentil As Anything, Newtown. Photo: Steve Lunam

Callan Boys

When a restaurant doesn't advertise its prices on the menu, you probably shouldn't be eating there when the phone bill's due. Not so at Lentil as Anything, where you can pay as much or as little as you like.

Lentil as Anything is a not-for-profit vegan cafe. You pay according to what you think the meal is worth and what you can afford – the stated mission is to “provide a wholesome and nutritious meal where money is not a concern”.

It's a risky business model to say the least, but there are already four Lentils in Melbourne that serve more than 1 million meals between them each year. I guess you really can rely on the generosity of strangers.

Veggie burger at Lentil as Anything.
Veggie burger at Lentil as Anything. Photo: Steve Lunam

Newtown's Cookies+Milk cafe has kindly lent its kitchen and dining room to the cause. Cookies trades its last cardamom tart at 5pm. Then the volunteer Lentil as Anything staff, headed by chef Tristan Griffiths, take over.

This is not a space from the soup kitchen school of design. There are tulips in milk bottles, lovingly reconditioned vintage furniture, and enough candles to light up Henson Park.

The venture opened last Wednesday night to a line-up snaking down King Street.

Lentil as Anything founder Shanaka Fernando reports there is already a strong Lentil community. "We have amazing volunteers and there's regulars after five days. I had tears in my eyes seeing what we had created in such a short time."

On the back of this reception, the Lentil team are looking for a place of their own where they can provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lentil as Anything's Melbourne restaurants make just enough in donations to get by. Any money remaining after overheads is invested in training asylum seekers in all areas of the kitchen. "We want to shift the attitude towards poverty to one that's about accepting people rather than seeing them as a threat," Fernando says.

The menu is globe-trotting and vegan. There's a mushroom and lentil burger, naturally, but you can also grab a Malaysian laksa or a Japanese platter with sesame sticky rice, glazed vegies and a pickled carrot and cabbage salad. Double thumbs-up for the miso soup that accompanies the platter. And I look forward to heading back for North Indian pakoras and Sri Lankan farmer's dosa.

The clientele is certainly mixed, which is awesome to see. For the most part, eating here is a trip back in time to mid-1990s Newtown, where Triple J and Juice magazine ruled the world. There's a bongo player up the back, the smell of chai in the air and at least half the diners are sporting dreadlocks, piercings, an ironic T-shirt or all three. On the flip side, there's no shortage of Mimco handbags either.

When it comes time to pay, there's a donation box at the front into which you can discreetly drop a couple of notes and be on your way.

Details: Lentil as Anything, Mon-Sun 6pm-9pm, 531 King Street, Newtown, lentilasanything.com