The Embarrassment of the Cereal Bowl
When I walked in the door at the Cereal Bowl on Sunday afternoon, there wasn't a soul in sight other than a lone counter employee. I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn't sure I wanted anyone spotting me in this cartoonish excuse of a Cleveland Park restaurant.
Now, you'd think that after all these years of eating out (and eating alone) in restaurants, I would never feel embarrassed to step foot into an eatery. I mean, I've developed a fairly high tolerance for public humiliation. But then again, I've never "dined" in a place like the Cereal Bowl before. I'm still trying to determine who eats at this place during traditional dinner hours. I suspect there aren't packs of 10-year-olds roaming Connecticut Avenue NW at that time of night.
It makes me think the Cereal Bowl views itself more as a snack and "dessert" outlet than a place for a meal.
There is, without a doubt, a lot of room for free-form self-expression at this place. You can mix and match any number of cereals — Froot Loops, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch or, if you're feeling rather adult, Grape Nuts — and top your creation with fruits, nuts, granola or "sweets" like (I kid you not) chocolate cookie dough or apple pie filling.
The potential number of combinations must be larger than the 39th Mersenne Prime. The Cereal Bowl laughs in the face of your typical top-your-own fro-yo shop, where the potential options now seem puny.
To be honest, I had no idea what to throw together. I mean, it's not like I could consult Page and Dornenburg's The Flavor Bible to help me figure out whether Froot Loops would pair nicely with Fruity Pebbles or just prove to be one large artificially fruit-flavored sugar bomb. So I surrendered to two of Cereal Bowl's signature combinations: The "Sweetest Thing" and the "Morning Glory." They have trademark symbols (™) next to their names online. Of course.
I ordered the Morning Glory in the name of giving the Cereal Bowl a fair shake. Among the "cold bowl" combinations available, this is one of the healthiest — or at least unlikely to turn your teeth into potholes right on the spot. My bowl included Frosted Mini-Wheats, sliced strawberries and bananas, and slivered almonds (a combo that differs slightly from the version described on the Cereal Bowl's Web site).
The Sweetest Thing, by contrast, is a dentist's wet dream: a bowl filled with Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Fruity Pebbles, Nilla Wafers, and for a garnish, rainbow sprinkles. You feel dizzy just looking at it.
I sat at a table, alternating between the bowls that I filled with 2 percent milk. (You can also select whole, skim, or soy.) The Morning Glory ($3.49 for a small serving) was a perfectly acceptable bowl, sweet and fruity and as fresh as you're going to get from a box of breakfast cereal made in one of 18 countries where Kellogg's products are manufactured. On the other hand, the Sweetest Thing ($3.29 for a small) looked like someone had melted down a circus clown and tasted like cinnamon bun soup. I couldn't finish it.
As I was spooning down those bowls, I tried to make myself invisible to the customers coming through the door. I know it's stupid. It's my job. I have a semi-legit reason for being here, but I really didn't want to explain to Dean Gold or Frank Ruta, should they happen to wander by the front windows, why I was wasting a valuable meal on the Cereal Bowl and not their Cleveland Park restaurants.
Of course, now that I've had time to think about it, here's what I would tell them: I'm trying like hell to figure out how a place like the Cereal Bowl can succeed in Cleveland Park. I can understand how it could work near a college campus, maybe even in a post-collegiate bar district like Adams Morgan. But here in Cleveland Park, despite its numerous bars, I don't think there are enough drunks jonsing for a secondary sugar rush to make this place work.
Besides, no one ever seems to hang out at the Cereal Bowl. During my time there on Sunday, I'd guess about 15 people wandered in, all of them choosing to eat their orders elsewhere. It makes me think that others are embarrassed to be seen at the Cereal Bowl, too.
What do you think, Y&H Nation? Give me your opinions on the Cereal Bowl and other potentially embarrassing places to eat. E-mail me with your thoughts, and I'll post the best of them on the Y&H blog.