Lost New York
The Ghost of Restaurants Past
East Village, RIP 1981-2016
My Ukranian college boyfriend introduced me The Stage in the East Village. Long after we had broken up, I continued to return to this hole-in-the-wall mecca of deliciousness. Michi and I liked to each get a cup of chicken noodle soup, with dill, and then split a plate of the meatloaf kept warm in tin drawers with mashed potatoes, gravy and soft boiled vegetables. It was hard to resist the meatloaf deep fried in breading. Sometimes we opted for the homemade pierogi's, being made, you could see, by an old Polish woman in the back of the kitchen. I liked the potato pierogi best, though the meat was a close second, and always with a dollop of sour cream, or apple sauce. In later years, after I had less reasons to be in the East Village, anytime I was nearby I would stop by for a dozen pierogi's to go. I'd pick up some apple sauce and fry the pierogi's in a hot skillet at home, but it was never the same as being served at that counter.
Chinatown, RIP 2015
Central Buffet occupied a prime spot on the corner of Howard and Centre on the edge of Chinatown and when we first started going over a decade ago, $4 bought you a cup of hot soup, white rice and your choice of 4 entrees. And what a dazzling array of options, so many that @yanakove liked to call Central Buffet the candy store. The dishes changed constantly so that every meal brought new discoveries. I had the impression that it was a sort of locals canteen, a place for the working man (or woman), that just happened to boast a generous open storefront so that even the cheap laminate tables felt bright and clean in the daylight. One of the few places in our lives that succeeded at being cheap, fast and fabulous.
Nolita, RIP 2007
I feel certain that Michi and I are the only ones who remember the homey red storefront of Eastanah before Serge Becker so firmly established Cafe Select as a neighborhood staple of the beautiful people. But that’s to be expected as Eastanah was fairly unremarkable - save for the wonton soup that came as part of the lunch special. How we still, to this day, pine for that wonton soup. The small bowl came with two little wontons filled with the tiniest portions of meat, so tiny that if you blinked you would miss it. The slightly tangy soup base perfectly accompanied the lunch size entree and nothing we have ever tasted since will replace that.
LA NUEVA CONQUISTA
Soho, RIP 2012
This is for all the hole-in-the-wall aficionados mourning the ongoing loss of proletariat eating and of hearty, cheap and intensely satisfying meals ladled out of hot metal trays into take out containers. By the time La Nueva Conquista closed in 2012, the price of lunch had risen to $8. This guy behind the counter, I never knew his name, but he was always there, with his glasses perched on his nose as he gazed silently at you while waiting for you to decide between the classic roast pork, stuffed peppers if they had them, or goat stew if not. You could also choose the color of the rice, the beans and whether or not you wanted pickled onions on top or a plantain on the side. He piled all that Dominican food up into a round metal take out container and then zipped the plastic lid closed in a couple quick motions. Once you ordered, you squeezed out of the way, and made your way back to the register, past the line of construction workers and laborers, to the front door to pay and collect your order. Because the space barely accommodated a narrow counter, some bar stools, and the dozen or so people waiting to order, there was always a line at La Nueva Conquista.
Nolita, RIP 2003-2017
PUBLIC was our neighborhood spot in the decade of our thirties, a time more stable than the flighty twenties and before kids changed the pace of our lives. When our friends decided to open a restaurant in the saturated NYC market, we all, of course, thought they were insane. But that didn’t stop us from assembling light fixtures, picking up a paint brush, and then pitching in as hostesses during the opening months. We all lived within a 10 minute walk of the restaurant and were guaranteed to find a friendly face any time we stopped by. We had book signings, parties, weddings and weekend brunches - passing milestones of that decade together, eating whatever chef Brad sent us out of the kitchen. PUBLIC closed last year, a little bit because of rising rents, but also because it was time to move on. After all, what else is this city but endless change. We briefly mourned the loss of a gem of a restaurant but also that period in our lives when we were building things based on a dream, a lot of sweat and somehow, crazily, succeeding.
Chinatown, RIP 2016
Parigot was nothing especially special, but that was sort of its secret appeal as well. We could always count on a table at the corner of Grand and Lafayette, classic French service, decent food and a charming atmosphere. I don’t think you can ask for much more from your regular neighborhood bistro. It may have never achieved great heights of distinction, but we loved it anyway. The other reason for which Parigot will always remain in our memories, is the time we bumped into Clive Owen on his way inside for lunch and were so awestruck, we ate in perfect silence, trying very hard to be quintessential New York, pretending he wasn't sitting two tables away.
CAFE EL PORTAL
Nolita, RIP 2015
Before this tiny space on Elizabeth St transformed into the bubble gum pop, infinitely Instagrammable, Pietro Nolita, it was home to the cozy and beloved Cafe El Portal. Chef Gloria Arteaga could often be found at the round table near the kitchen, scooping out avocados for the guacamole or husking tomatillos for the salsa verde. Sitting there, she reminded us of someone’s Mexican mama who wanted to make you something good to eat. And she always did. Whether we opted for the guacamole, the homemade tortilla chips or the irresistible cucumber juice, everything was made fresh and right there in the tiny kitchen at the back. I often ordered heuvos rancheros for lunch because I loved the way they scrambled the chorizo and eggs together, but Michi preferred the homemade comfort of the tamales. That was the real lure of Cafe El Portal - the authenticity of home cooked meals. We may not have any Instagram-worthy images by which to remember chef Arteaga's cooking, but the warmth of her Mexican cooking filling our bellies will stay with us for always.
ORO BAKERY & BAR
Nolita, RIP 2008-2015
After a decade in Nolita, we moved downtown for shorter commutes, yet once a week the kids and I would wake up a little earlier to take the subway back up to Oro where Dorina would always be ready with hot coffee for me and croissants for the kids. Change is inevitable and sometimes even welcome, but the move was significant enough that we were unwilling to give up our regular status at Oro. Frank Bruni said, “to be a regular is to insist on something steady in a world and a life with too many shocks, too much loss.” And maybe that’s what we were doing when we commuted back to Nolita for breakfast before school once a week. We weren’t ready to give up our seats at the end of the bar counter next to Mr. Jason @goodsy_ who grilled the kids on their favorite soccer teams and taught them straw tricks. It wasn’t just a reluctance to change that kept us returning for years after we left the neighborhood, it was the glorious sticky buns that came out only occasionally in the morning, the perfect madeleines that we often had for afternoon snack and the lemon cakes that managed to tread the ideal line between sweet and tart. A regular spot fulfills both a desire for community and a craving for good eats, and Oro succeeded in both. Dorina is still making delicious things @oroprovisions but our time as regulars has passed.
East Village, RIP 2006-2015
Before, and even after, Momofuku and Ippudo opened in the early aughts, and ramen became a foodie destination, we continued to get our hot bowl of comfort at Menkuitei near Cooper Square. Unassuming decor, the restaurant always had room for a family of four meeting a single friend living in the East Village at a table in the back. We wouldn’t order without first looking at the hand written signs taped up all over the walls declaring the season’s specials, though we usually ended up with bowls of shoyu ramen and sometimes a plate of gyoza and fried rice. Straightforward as the decor, the food consistently hit the spot with its unvarnished definition of Japanese comfort. Whenever we craved ramen without the endlessly long lines or narrow counter eating, we found ourselves at Menkuitei. It’s hard to find places with reasonable prices for regular eating, that always had a table for four, or sometimes five, with a menu that placated picky adult and kid palettes - but Menkuitei easily fulfilled every requirement.
Soho, RIP 2007
In a way, drawing the ghost of restaurants past is much like drawing #everypersoninnewyork @jasonpolan - a never ending task. In our #fastlife #newyorkcity there will always be beloved places to miss and mourn. And though we learn to live with the constant change, everyone has a first closure, the one that makes you stop and realize nothing is forever. For me it was Palacinka, tucked on the forgotten west end of Grand St. I can still feel the brilliant afternoon southern light from the coveted window seats. Though the owners were not French, Palacinka made the most perfect crepes in an array of savory and sweet. We all had steady jobs by then, and the casual charm of Palacinka combined with the not-expensive menu made us feel properly grown up. I always ordered an Orangina with my meal because they served the bulb shaped bottle chilled, with a glass and no ice, utter satisfaction. After a main savory crepe, we always finished with a butter sugar one and an espresso, preferably in the late afternoon when the warm sunlight lit up the furthest corners of the restaurant.