When the Camden Supper Club convenes, optimism is on the menu.
The informal monthly dinner is a chance for young city residents, students, entrepreneurs, and others to break bread together - and enjoy a night out in a town they believe is on the rise.
"This is amazing," Web designer Joseph Russell, 30, says, sampling stewed oxtail over rice Tuesday at the Reggae Grill on the 2100 block of Federal Street, where 15 people are sharing the table.
Like Russell, a Collingswood resident, some live outside the city. But they have a connection or a commitment to Camden, and anyone is welcome to pull up a chair.
"It's an opportunity to see what the community is really about," says Danielle E. Davis, 28, a graduate student at Rutgers University in Camden.
"The best [way] is to sit down and eat," adds Davis, who is studying for a master's degree in public administration and lives in the Victor apartments downtown. "Everybody likes to eat, right?"
"God, is this good," says Shauna Shames, 35, a Victor resident and Rutgers-Camden assistant professor of political science, who's also having oxtail. "I'm hoping people start to realize that Camden is a cool place."
Inspired by the monthly "Dine Around Friday" luncheons sponsored by the city's Latin American Economic Development Association, the supper club seeks to sample and showcase Camden's modest, but eclectic, selection of dining options.
"People like to eat at local ethnic places that have great food, and there are gems in Camden," says Victor resident Stephen Danley, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden and the organizer of the club.
The first dinner was Jan. 22 at Corinne's Place, on Haddon Avenue, the city's unofficial soul-food headquarters.
In February, the group met at Freddy's Restaurant, a popular spot offering Latin-Caribbean fare on Westfield Avenue in East Camden.
The club "is a way more convenient way to have dinner with people than having to drive to Cherry Hill or Philly," first-timer Michael Zier says.
A resident of Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood, Zier, 29, works two part-time jobs while he lays the groundwork for a hip-hop cultural arts project called the Muse Collaborative.
He's among a number of young people on the city's emerging grassroots arts scene, which includes the Gallery Eleven One downtown, and small enterprises such as the Superior Arts Institute and Black Light Entertainment.
Their commercial counterparts include the Made in Camden Store in Parkside, and downtown's Cooper River Distillers.
"A lot of people in Camden are doing good things, but it's hard to work [here], and we all kind of keep our heads down," says Adam Woods, the chief executive officer of Camden Printworks, a screen printing business in Waterfront South.
"So it's nice to get together with people who are doing praiseworthy things, and have fellowship," adds Woods, who is 33 and lives in Philadelphia.
"The value of something like [the supper club] is that it gets people talking," notes Russell's brother Michael, 25, a freelance journalist from Gloucester Township.
At the Reggae Grill, owners David and Anntoinette Williams prepare and serve Jamaican soul-food items including curried goat, jerk chicken, and mac-and-cheese from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
My pepper steak, fried plantains, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and homemade pineapple-ginger juice are fabulous. The atmosphere is no frills, but familial.
As for business, David says it has been "steadily growing" since he opened on June 28, 2013 (reggaegrillrestaurant.com).
"It has potential," Anntoinette says. "We need to get the word out," adds David.
LAEDA chief executive officer Ray Lamboy says the city needs "urban explorers who go to Federal Street and have a [meal], have a good experience, tell their friends about it . . . and then come back."