We all know that in New York City, only the strong survive. That's especially true for restaurants because the margins are razor-thin. Places fall out of favor if they can't maintain a high level of quality in both food and service. And as newer eateries open up, in tandem with current trends and preferences, those that are stuck in the past get left behind. But there are holdouts worth celebrating; classic institutions built decades ago that that have survived determinedly. These places are still in business, first and foremost, because their food remains good, but also because they emanate a certain vintage and valuable charm. Think neon signage, a thriving drinks program (alcohol = profits), and a noteworthy burger.
One example is J.G. Melon on the Upper East Side (c. 1972)—not to be conflated with its downtown sibling, opened 40+ years later—where white-and-green checkered tablecloths are stamped with shamrocks and cottage fried potatoes serve as French fries. My siblings and I grew up on Corner Bistro, at Jane and West 4th, meeting friends for mugs of cheap beer (both before and after we were of age) and indulging in lunchtime or late-night bistro burgers with crispy bacon. Its website, which shows its age, boasts that they've been "serving customers since the earlier part of this century."
I've recently come to appreciate a restaurant and bar in SoHo that falls squarely into this category, as it's been rocking since 1922. Before it came my go-to for after-work drinks, I was a regular at its attached soup kiosk. During cold weather months, you'll see a line of blue- and white-collar workers form at the corner of Prince, wrapping down Mercer, waiting to pay cash for containers filled with one of the city's best tomato soups, typical beef or vegetarian chili, spice-laden Moroccan lamb stew, gummy New England clam chowder, or—if their sinuses are clogged—clean and simple chicken-and-veggie. Plus crackers or bread, for as little as $5 and no more than $8. In high school, my friend Claire and I used to make the eight-minute trek there from Charlton and Varick during our lunch hour. After walking back in 20-degree weather, holding our steaming hot liquid in white paper bags, our soups were at the perfect temperature by the time we reached the cafeteria. Years later, I became re-acquainted with the soup kiosk when I took my first job in SoHo. Thanks to tips from coworkers, I discovered my now favorite order: half tomato soup, half beef chili, topped with shredded cheddar cheese and a heavy dose of Tabasco, hold the rice. I started going up to three times a week, cementing a tight-knit bond with my fellow soup-loving friend, Josy. The lady who worked the window most days—bless her soul—came to know us and gave us discounts. She had a soft spot for our friend Kyle, who sometimes didn't have to pay at all.
Yet beyond the kiosk facade, there's so much more: a tavern full of history complete with a hand-carved, dark-wood bar that's seen it all; a two-roomed haven, miraculously protected from the crowds of tourist shoppers that swarm the area; a world of ice-cold dirty martinis and perfect, thin-cut French fries encapsulated by a press-tinned ceiling and a no-frills tile floor.
My insides warm from the moment I step inside. It's due to the cozy, worn-in feel; the pervasive sense of nostalgia that fills the space; the comfort food that comes quickly; the unfussy service from waitresses and bartenders who've been clocking in for years. Mostly though, it's that all of that is amplified because I'm a native New Yorker.
It's not one of those essential places where everyone has been. Plenty of people in my life don't even know of it, but I'm always uncovering other regulars in the kids I came of age with. Just the other day I was with my friend Chip who, like me, was raised in the Village. Her boyfriend happened to be meeting a friend there for dinner, so we got to talking about how great it is that you can get a table even when you're only drinking and not eating; how it's always crowded but never insufferably so; how if there's ever more than a five-ten minute wait, most people will go elsewhere instead of blocking passageways. There's a level of respect for the institution and the way it operates that's understood amongst its patrons.
I remember every hang I've had at this iconic establishment—all of the gin & tonics, all of the catch-ups at the bar, all of the burgers in the back room. And that in and of itself demonstrates its appeal: time spent here is registered into the long-standing fabric of downtown New York and the lives of its denizens. Right now, with the holiday season fueled by sentimentality in full swing, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.
Meet me at Fanelli's.
94 Prince St, New York, NY 10012
Fanelli Cafe [Wikipedia]
Two years ago, Fanelli's legendary bartender Bob Bozic packed his bags and left to reclaim his family mansion (once seized by Communists) in Belgrade [NYTimes]
"It's hard to talk about flavor" but Sam Anderson, inspired by The Noma Guide to Fermentation, makes it look easy [NYTimes Magazine]
I laughed, I judged, I loved it: Do You Even Bake, Bro? [Eater]
Never been one for a bialy, but I respect the opinion laid out in this piece [NYTimes Magazine]
Because pizza as a basis for argument never gets old: I'm a Joe's loyalist when it comes to the NY slice, but I finally tried The Hellboy in slice form at Paulie Gee's Slice Shop, and it's a game-changer. [NYTimes]
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