Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fanelli Café: Can a 164-Year-Old New York City Bar Survive Me?


By Mitch Broder

I recently had my first lunch at Fanelli Café. I like to give a new place a century and a half to settle in.

If the findings of Richard McDermott are correct, there has indeed been lunch of some sort at the site of Fanelli since 1847. McDermott made it his hobby to pinpoint the ages of the city’s old bars. He put Fanelli second after Bridge Café, born in 1794, the year of the Whiskey Rebellion.

When I got to Fanelli I saw seven doors, which made me feel welcome. I chose the two under the transom that faces the street corner. The glass bears the name of Nicholas Gerdes, who sold the bar 110 years ago. I was too late for his food. Also for the Fanellis’. They sold the bar 30 years ago.

My corner. I'm not in the picture.
Nevertheless, I’d heard that the place still has a great burger. I sat in a room with yellow tin walls and wooden chairs that could predate Nicholas. It was cozy. I ordered the burger. It came, and it looked just fine — except that the bun was riddled with pulverized onion.

I don’t like onion. Even pulverized. I told the waitress, and she offered to exchange my bun for a lobster-roll bun. I accepted. She also assured me that I was not the first with this problem, which was a surprise, as was the lobster-roll bun, since Fanelli doesn’t sell lobster rolls.

The burger was delicious, though for a while I was craving lobster. I wondered why they serve everybody onion buns without asking. I spoke to the owner, Sasha Noe. He was sympathic, but he appeared to think that I actually was the first with this problem.

And yet he was troubled. We spent some time talking of the bar’s history. McDermott’s research shows that Fanelli began as a grocery, but it points out that there was a fine line then between “grocery” and “saloon.” A succession of people became the saloon’s keepers, including Gerdes from 1878 to 1902. Michael Fanelli took over in 1922. Sasha’s family replaced the Fanellis in 1982.

But as we talked, Sasha kept coming back to the onions. I felt bad. I’d had my lobster bun. I tried to reassure him. He had the second-oldest bar in New York City, I reminded him. But he still seemed wounded. If you happen to make onionless burger buns, this might be the time to pitch him.

I said goodbye to Sasha and again mentioned that I loved his burger.

“Now you got me thinkin’,” he said. “I’m not gonna sleep tonight.”


Choose your bun at Fanelli Café, 94 Prince Street, at Mercer Street, in Manhattan.


  1. Brilliant.
    "I like to give a new place a century and a half to settle in."
    Love it. You are so good.
    Write a book. I want to read more.

  2. Also, I like onions, pulverized or otherwise.