Grief and Sex at Mimi's Cafe

Even the suburbs of my childhood had something to lose.

Grief and Sex at Mimi's Cafe
Mimi’s Cafe menu from the 80s. via Ebay

It’s hard to explain the hold Mimi’s Cafe had on me as a California kid. When I was little, we’d meet my grandparents at the Mimi’s in Anaheim. It just felt so damned sophisticated. In the Orange County suburbs, Mimi’s Cafe had a sense of place. Like dining in a set from An American in Paris. Red checked tablecloths, real flowers on the tables, and a motherforking bread basket. The butter came swirled in a little ceramic bowl. The napkins? Cloth! 

In one of the larger dining rooms, the upper half of a wall was mocked up like a balcony in the French Quarter. A chair, flowers and a little green door. I wondered what was behind that door. If you’d told me drywall, I’d never have believed you. Mimi’s Cafe contained multitudes.

That Anaheim Mimi’s Cafe was the first, it opened in 1978. One of the first fast casual restaurants in California, Mimi’s mixed a coffee shop and restaurant in a way that felt new. At its height, the chain had over 100 restaurants spread across the United States. Lots of people ate at Mimi’s. Who was Mimi? Arthur J Simms said he named the restaurant after a girl he met while he was a soldier in World War II.

I don’t know if Mimi was real. As a kid, I thought the restaurant felt just like a real French cafe. I’d never been to France. Now I know it was a French cafe as imagined by an American who saw France through the lens of American liberation. So maybe my impression of it as a set from An American in Paris was right after all. Well, American in Paris plus the few odd nods to New Orleans.

The 1997 kidnapping (and subsequent safe return) of Simms’ grandchild only added to my childhood sense that Mimi’s was an important institution. I’d seen movies about kids being kidnapped for ransom and I felt certain it only happened to people of great importance. It was something to be the heir to the Mimi’s empire.

Mimi’s Cafe was the only place we ate with a menu that had to be unfolded. The kids menu took children seriously. Kids could order mini versions of adult entrees. Fish and steak for kids! I only ordered the chicken, but I appreciated the option. Every kid’s meal came with a white ceramic cup full of chocolate pudding, crushed chocolate cookies and a single gummy worm. It was dirt with a worm! On my plate!

That cup of worms was a humble primer for my distant understanding the work of great chefs like Ferran Adriá. I never tasted the El Bulli dishes created to invoke earth, snow and thaw, but I get why they induced wonder. When I was little, I clapped my hands together every time that dirt cup was set down in front of me.

The same balcony, in a different Mimi’s Cafe.

On Saturday morning, you had to press through a crowd to give your name to the hostess. It was always worth the wait. I had pancakes with berries for the first time at Mimi’s. When I turned 12, the grown up dinner menu was a revelation in sandwiches. It was the first place I had a french dip, club and monte cristo. Later, I’d understand that sandwiches exist beyond dips and clubs. But at the time, each stacked plate felt like culture wedged between an Applebee’s and Chili’s. 

We didn’t just eat at Mimi’s Cafe, we celebrated there too. When I got second place in the fourth grade writing contest, I didn’t feel like I had anything to celebrate. But the bread pudding at Mimi’s seemed to know different. It was an easy place for grief. Would you like a booth or a table? After my grandmother’s funeral, we asked for the booth. We could all slide in next to each other and sit quietly until it was time to order. I remember pushing in the top of my chicken pot pie to let the heat out while I tried to think of what to say.

By the time I went to college, I understood Mimi’s Cafe gestured at culture while serving serviceable chain food. I didn’t suggest it when my friends and I went out to dinner. Instead, we looked for little dives and saved up for restaurants we couldn’t afford. But I felt a secret joy whenever I visited home and my mom asked if I wanted to get lunch at Mimi’s. I’d order a club sandwich with fries. Could I add a house salad with ranch, please? The waiter never winced when I asked for ranch dressing. I appreciated that I could still order like a kid from the grown up menu. 

My family wasn’t the only one who used Mimi’s to mark milestones. A few weeks before we got married, my husband’s mom took him to breakfast at the Mimi’s Cafe in our hometown. Right after the waiter took their order, my mother-in-law pulled a gift bag out from under the table. She told him she’d brought him to breakfast because she wanted to make sure I was going to have a good time when we had sex. She then explained everything from lubrication to the clitoris to the importance of foreplay. 

As she did this she held up items from the gift bag that corresponded with each point. Lube, a how-to-have-good-sex instruction book, a candle that melted into massage wax, and a pair of boxer shorts because “sometimes a little mystery is nice.” In Riley’s telling, the waiter brought his bacon and eggs while his mom held up the boxer shorts. Riley’s mom denied this. She’s probably right, but it’s funnier the other way. 

I think even the best mother in law/daughter in law relationships undergo periods of tension. But even when we haven’t seen eye to eye, I’ve always remembered that breakfast. Riley and I were very young, just twenty-one years old each! And we’d never had sex.* But we weren’t completely uninformed. Riley probably didn’t need the gift bag or instruction. But it was so generous of her to give both so freely. She took him to Mimi’s to make sure he knew I better always come first, in every sense of the word. Ahem.

In the 2010s, Mimi’s was sold twice. It went through rebrands, revamps and closures. The very first Mimi’s Cafe, where I ate with my grandparents, is closed now. I ate at a Mimi’s about ten years ago. There was no wait to be seated, no bread basket or swirled butter. The menu was small enough to fit on one double-sided piece of paper. The food was different. Fewer creamy sauces, more lifestyle choices. There was a “fresh and fit” category, with calories listed next to each item. 

When I ordered my two year old her meal, it didn’t come with a cup of pudding and worms. And my dinner didn’t taste like suburbia striving for significance. It tasted like airplane food. For the first time, I realized that even the suburbs of my childhood had something to lose. 

Our table was just below the standard facade of a balcony in the French Quarter. It had a chair, flowers and a little green door. When my daughter asked what was behind the door, I told her. 


*We were raised in the LDS Church and we were taught that premarital sex was a no-go. So we didn’t have sex till we got married. Another story for another day! Probably!