Lennon Edwards, an attorney who lunches daily at Little Lad’s, was eager to share his story with the Transom. “My secretary came upstairs one day and told me she’d gotten lunch downstairs for a few dollars,” he said. “I told her, ‘That’s impossible.’ So I came down and got myself a Chick-in-Salad for lunch. Then I realized it wasn’t chicken salad, and I thought it was disgusting. But my cholesterol was high, so I came back and ate here for 30 days, and at the end of the month my cholesterol went down 37 points. I’ve been eating here ever since.”
Mr. Edwards’ account proved typical, as a stream of vibrant-looking customers followed with their own testimonials. “This is the only place I can happily spend my money,” Roby Seth, an accountant, told the Transom. Ira, a city planner, recalled phoning Mr. Fleming from the White House to report that his allergies had vanished as a result of following Mr. Fleming’s advice. “Not only is the food great,” a customer named Dominic chimed in, “but the people here are friendly. Everything that I eat–every vegetable–I learn what it’s good for and where they got it.”
Mr. Fleming, who works the register four days a week, welcomes questions about his eating theories. When asked why the three-bean salad contains no vinegar, he explained, “In the Bible, Jesus says, ‘My enemies gave me vinegar to drink.’ It’s an acetic acid, so it shouldn’t touch your skin. I want to make a brochure with a guy wearing a chemical suit while he puts dressing on his salad.” Mr. Fleming also advises against drinking water with meals. “When you eat, food mixes with your saliva, which is acid,” he told the Transom. “But you know what dilutes acid? Water. If you spill acid on something, you put water on it right away. Quit drinking with your meals, and you’ll get way more satisfaction.”
A self-taught chef and father of six, Mr. Fleming is capable of pausing mid-sentence, engaging a flood of customers, and picking up exactly where he left off. “During World War II,” he told the Transom, “they found a guy in a concentration camp who was not as emaciated as everyone else. They thought–Hi, Leslie!–he was ratting on people and getting food as a reward. What they found is that he actually chewed each bite 200 times, getting more nutrition as a result.”
Having opened restaurants in Oslo, Japan, and most recently in Nigeria, Mr. Fleming is proficient in many languages. Over the course of a three-hour lunch rush, the Transom witnessed conversations with customers in Thai, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Serbian, Spanish, French, Tagalog and Farsi. “The challenge,” Mr. Fleming explained, “is to figure out which language to speak [to a customer]. I have an 85 percent success rate.” Actually, it appeared closer to 99 percent, with the sole error arising from a misapprehension of Nepalese dialect. The mistake was hastily corrected.
Between bites of coconut bonbon, customers updated Mr. Fleming on their ailments and thanked him for his hospitality. One woman promised pictures from her wedding, for which one of Mr. Fleming’s daughters sewed bridesmaid dresses. “Jess-i-ca,” Mr. Fleming greeted a pink-haired Chilean woman who stood in line for a lemon-blueberry cookie. (“Stressed is desserts spelled backwards,” goes one of his favorite mottoes.) A Japanese-born customer paused to exchange reminiscences about Osaka, and Larry, a trim IT specialist, extolled the spaghetti and wheatballs. The ano
nymous commissioner, for his part, testified that Little Lad’s is “the best lunch that you can get.” Mr. Fleming deflected all compliments. “We’re called Little Lad’s, but really we’re Hidden Lad’s,” he said. “I’m always getting better than I deserve.”