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Everybody knows how a restaurant works. A greeter of some sort takes you to your table. A server gives you a menu and you choose from a variety of items. The server comes back and puts the food in front of you. Somebody else comes around and fills your water glass, and somebody else takes your empty plates. After you eat, you get a check.

There are a few variations, but the model is almost universal. Ripe, a catering company located in the recently renovated Gotham Building on North Interstate Avenue, is breaking the mold. Its paradigm-buster isn't anything radical. Borrowing from a ritual that goes back to just after humans started using fire to make food taste better, Ripe created something this year called Family Supper.

This is how Family Supper works: You have to be invited. You show up at 7:30 pm and mingle. At about 8 pm, everybody sits down at one of the long communal tables, and dinner is served. Big bowls and platters are passed around. You help yourself, and your only choices are how much to put on your plate and whether or not you want dessert. When you feel like leaving, you leave $20 ($25 if you had dessert) and $4 per glass of wine, plus tip, in a bowl by the door.

A couple named Michael Hebb and Naomi Pomeroy, both under the age of 30, run Ripe Catering. They've both grown up with an awareness of good food, from their own all-American family suppers to the Michelin-starred restaurants of Europe to Asian street food. Jobs in kitchens and dining rooms, including Zefiro, Paley's, the Bijou and Mother's, provided experience and a sense that there had to be a better way.

Family Supper, says Hebb, "grew out of a desire to do more than just catering." He'd studied architecture and graphic design and applied the same process of asking fundamental questions about structure and function to the basic restaurant set-up. "I wanted," he says, "to design a different food experience."

The experience Ripe offers apparently rings true. Every few weeks, an email announcement lists the open dates--just three nights each week--and they fill quickly. Family Supper isn't open to the general public because it doesn't have to be. "I want a palpable connection to every person at my table," says Hebb. "I walk in and I see guests, not customers."

When you eat at Family Supper, you become part of what Hebb likes to call "a community of strangers." (If you want to join the community, find someone who's on the Ripe email list and have them forward the invitation--this is Portland, it shouldn't be that hard if you ask around.) Couples exchange intimacy for connection as they get to know their tablemates. By the end of the night, people are swapping phone numbers and talking about when they're coming back.

It's tempting to say that Family Supper is one of those only-in-Portland phenomena. Our one degree of separation means you'll almost always run into someone you know, even in a small crowd of 30, so these dinners don't seem as daunting as they might in a bigger city. This is also a food-loving town, so we're quick to embrace anything that promises good eating.

But I think the appeal runs deeper. Some anthropologists think that sharing food is one of the fundamentally human traits that sets us apart. Breaking bread is a universal act of peace and compassion. If the absence of a family meal is, as some cultural critics believe, a cause of increasing social discord, then who wouldn't want to find a substitute?

Family Supper wouldn't be so popular if the food was like, well, family supper. You won't get the carefully designed and plated arrangements that upscale eateries love, but the ingredients and flavors come with the same careful attention to detail.

A set menu and single seating free Ripe from the cooking tricks restaurants must use to be able to deliver something that takes an hour, like roast chicken, in less than 20 minutes. Head cook Dan Spitz doesn't have to cook risotto halfway through and keep a tub of it in the walk-in ready for a last-minute finish. (Not that he doesn't know how: Spitz worked at Zefiro in its glory days, was chef at Saucebox, then opened Mint just down the street. At his side in the kitchen is J. B. Tranholm, another Zefiro alum who defected from Cafe Castagna.)

At my first Family Supper, the meal started with a salad of sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh corn stripped from the cob, and crunchy, cucumberlike chayote squash, all tossed in a lime vinaigrette with fresh oregano. Next came wide bowls of blue corn posole. The dried corn had been repeatedly soaked and rinsed to become the chewy nuggets Southerners call hominy, then stewed with pork. Bowls of cilantro and onion were set out, along with fresh house-made tortillas and a mild, red pepper-habanero salsa. We had all been chatting away, but once the food was out, the only sounds were the occasional sigh.

I think we all had seconds, and we joked about who got to wipe the posole bowls clean. I can't remember their names, but the couple across the table got up and asked who wanted dessert. Mandy Groom Givler, who followed Bruce Carey from Zefiro to Bluehour before hooking up with Ripe, makes dessert for Family Supper, so I said yes to a piece of the sponge cake layered with lemon curd and berries and served with a dollop of whipped cream. Givler makes great pastries that are never too sweet.

The next visit featured salmon cooked in saor, a regional twist on the Venetian method of serving fresh sardines layered in onions and flavored with vinegar, but at Ripe the onions were Walla Walla sweets. Platters of couscous flavored with cinnamon and grilled baby squash were passed around. It turned out that the woman sitting next to me knew one of my friends, and we ended up talking about wine bars in Venice.

At another Family Supper, we ran into a pair of old friends who were with a group celebrating a birthday. We joined the party, and we all ate sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with chunky sea salt, followed by brined pork loin with a sauce made from fresh apricots. Good enough, but it was a side dish of succotash made with fresh sweet corn, chanterelles, cranberry shell beans and thick chunks of bacon that blew me away. We took a break for birthday presents, though, and it gave me the time to recover for slice of peach pie with lavender whipped cream.

Ripe's Family Supper isn't going to put any restaurant out of business. There are nights when you want the service, setting and theater that fine dining comprises. And when you've got a craving for pad Thai, sushi, spaghetti carbonara or a thick burger, you know exactly who makes it the way you like it. At Family Supper you'll eat well, sometimes incredibly well, and you'll share the experience with people you don't really know. It's probably not for everyone, and that suits Hebb and Pomeroy just fine. But if you want more than just a meal and can commit to participating, come to the table.