Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Hourglass Tavern: Time Sifts When You're Having Fun

Dining in New York at the Hourglass Tavern is a unique experience.
By Mitch Broder

In Times Square, you can watch a ball drop until your year is gone.

Just blocks away, you can watch sand drop until your seat is gone.

Either way, something is gone. But in Times Square you could be cold and hungry, while just blocks away you could be warm and fed. Personally, I’d take warm and fed, meaning the Hourglass Tavern, the most hospitable place you can find in Manhattan to throw you out.

You're on the clock when dining in New York at the Hourglass Tavern
Beth setting the clock.
The Hourglass opened three decades ago on a reasonable premise: They had just a little space, so you had just a little time. There was an hourglass nearby at every table. When you sat down, it got flipped; when it ran out, you got flipped. If you couldn’t eat dinner in an hour, you didn’t belong in New York City.

Theoretically, the metered meals aided the patrons as much as the restaurant, since the Hourglass is on Restaurant Row, in the Theater District. People dining close to curtain time wanted to know when they should leave. With the moments passing before their eyes, they were hard-pressed not to know.

The Hourglass was run for about twenty-five years by Christo and Tina Sideris. They retired and sold it three years ago to Beth Sheinis and Josh Toth. The new owners have, naturally, renovated, refurbished, and reimagined. The good news is, they’ve kept the tradition of giving you the bum’s rush.

Actually, they don’t do it that often, since the Hourglass has grown. It began with a few tables on one floor and now has tables on three. But it’s still small, and, Beth says, “a lot of people will make reservations for four o’clock and want to sit till their eight o’clock show.” Those are the people who are just asking for it.

Still, Beth is more inclined to welcome than to eject. She loves her job and believes that part of it is making people feel at home. I met her at the bar at rush hour, and she introduced me to the crowd by announcing: “Everybody, this is Mitch.” I expected everybody to hurl olives.

The bar is new. It’s named Bettibar and is fittingly cozy. The third-floor décor is new. The walls are festooned with musical instruments. But the rooms still feel like 1894, which is when the brownstone they’re in was built. And most of the tables still have hourglasses. And the ones that don’t still can.

“We have all their original hourglasses,” Beth says. “We have hourglasses that can go to the tables.”

“But don’t be afraid to come in,” she adds. “We are flexible. And if we do ask people for their table, it’s part of the experience of the restaurant.”

Step inside the Hourglass Tavern for a unique experience when dining in New York.

Savor the minutes at The Hourglass Tavern, 373 West 46th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, New York City.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks: The Little Shop With a Lot to Digest

Julia Child would be proud of the collection of cookbooks at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
By Mitch Broder

Your festive entrée at home is most likely turkey, roast beef, or ham.

But it could be Rabbit Loaf, Pizza Pot Pie, or Coca-Cola Chicken.

There are 46 ways to make meatloaf in this cookbook that is found at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.
Or not. Still it’s always good to have unconventional options, and you have them — at least for dinner — if you visit Bonnie Slotnick.

Bonnie’s bookshop is a treasure house of lost culinary possibilities, because it sells only out-of-print and antiquarian cookbooks. They include the books with the recipes for the above — respectively, “Meatloaf” by Sharon Moore, “Pot Pies” by Beatrice Ojakangas, and “The Kitchen Sink Cookbook” by Carolyn Wyman, which also has the recipe for Chocolate Cricket Torte.

The store has fruit-based books like “The Apple Cookbook,” nut-based books like “The Walnut Cookbook,” flavoring-based books like “The Vanilla Cookbook,” and condiment-based books like “The Plain & Fancy Mustard Cookbook.” It also has boat-based books like “The Cruising Cookbook,” dwelling-based books like “The Commune Cookbook,” restaurant-based books like “Lüchow’s German Cookbook,” and 99-cent-store-based books like “The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook.”

It has every kind of cookbook you could imagine and many kinds you couldn’t, from the past couple of centuries, at reasonable cost. They are standing on shelves, lying on tables, and reposing on the carpet. They tempt you to grab an armful and repose on the carpet.

Search through the stacks at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks for a unique New York shopping experience.

Indeed, walk into Bonnie’s store and you feel like you’re in Bonnie’s apartment, not that I’ve been in her apartment, but I picture it as comparably cozy. The old books are accented by old kitchen utensils like The Acme Rotary Mincer and by old kitchen products like Betty Brite Bake Cups. I thought I might meet Betty Brite.

A close up look at some of the selections available at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.I also thought I might meet Betty Crocker, though she, too, does not exist, but try telling that to many of Bonnie’s most determined customers. Betty’s books are the number-one seller, due to her apparent immortality and to her parent company’s referrals of lost-book-hunters to Bonnie.

It’s a shame, in a way, since there are so many real people to choose from. If you had a recipe and a name, you probably have a book for sale at Bonnie’s.

She has “The James Beard Cook Book,” “The Maurice Moore-Betty Cookbook,” “Helen Corbitt’s Cook-book,” and “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” She has “The Emily Post Cook Book,” “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook,” “The Dinah Shore Cook Book,” and “The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book.”

Naturally, she has all these books because she’s not a fashion illustrator. She studied to be one at Parsons but was happier working at the Parsons library. She began collecting old books and found herself especially fond of old cookbooks. Meanwhile, she worked as a writer and editor at a company that published new cookbooks.

Get lost in the cookbooks you'll find at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.She became a partner at the uptown store Kitchen Arts & Letters, where she was in charge of the out-of-print books. Eventually she was selling books on her own from a Greenwich Village office. Soon after, she opened her store. It’s twelve years old. It seems like forty.

This is the only store I know that has no negative comments online, unless you count the occasional complaint that it’s not open around the clock. Bonnie loves her books and wants to find each one a happy home. She has a Web site on which she encourages patrons to call rather than to e-mail.

She has filled all sorts of requests, from a single Betty Crocker to a complete collection of strictly first-edition James Beard. “But the really challenging request,” she says, “is the call from the person who doesn’t know the name of the book they’re looking for, but their mother had it and it was gray, but the cover fell off in 1962, and it has a recipe for cooking turtle, with the ingredients printed in red.”

When she finds it — as she will — she doesn’t require lavish praise. Instead, she may request just a small souvenir.

“If someone gets a long-lost book for their grandmother, I sometimes ask them to take a picture of her opening the package,” she says. “I have some of those hanging behind the desk.”

Step inside Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks for a uniquely New York experience.

Savor Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, 163 West 10th Street, near Seventh Avenue South, New York City.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Donut Pub: Come See What It Takes to Make Dunkin' Run

Just looking in the window of The Donut Pub is a wonderful dining in New York experience
By Mitch Broder

In the new year, The Donut Pub will surely get new neighbors, but they won’t be Munchkins.

The Munchkins are gone till 2020.

Dunkin Donuts didn't survive down the street from The Donut Pub
Those would be the Munchkins of Dunkin’ Donuts, the chain that has 9,700 more stores than The Donut Pub, which has one. A Dunkin’ store moved in near The Donut Pub in 2007. It moved out months ago. All that’s left are Dunkin’ Doorknobs.

Dunkin’ technically had seniority. The chain began in 1950; The Donut Pub didn’t open till 1964. But by 2007, The Donut Pub had already knocked off one Dunkin’ Donuts. The neighborhood had cast its vote for a place that calls Munchkins “Donut Holes.”

That was in the late nineties. Yet Dunkin’ tried again a decade later, at 215 West 14th Street, just a few doors away. So it should be returning in about nine years, and gone again in four. America may run on Dunkin’, but New York stops at The Pub.

It stops there because The Pub has better doughnuts and better service, not to mention a better sign. But better isn’t always enough. I think The Pub wins because Dunkin’ Donuts feels like a place to get out of, while The Donut Pub feels like a place to come into.

Hot coffee and delicious donuts await New York diners at The Donut Pub

It has a counter where people nestle with a newspaper and two pastries, since they usually have two favorites and get both rather than choose. And it has counter people who want to please you, like Sam, who’s been there for twenty-six years, and Gus Markatos, who’s the manager but doesn’t let that stop him.

“I like interacting with people,” he told me. “When someone’s not in, I cover for them. I drink coffee, I eat doughnuts, I do everything.” Still, it’s the pastries that keep The Pub popular, he said. “We have the best black-and-white in the city,” he added. I still don’t know how he knew I would care.

Freshly made donuts are a staple of dining in New York at The Donut Pub
But he knew or guessed, and he brought me one. It seemed free at the time. But Gus is a businessman. He knew what he was doing. I’ve been back twice. The second time the cookies were just out of the oven and Sam had one frosted for me in all chocolate. That doesn’t happen at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But The Pub has always had doughnut competitors, at least till they’ve run out of dough. In the sixties doughnuts were everywhere, since back then they were good for you. There were shops all over the neighborhood, Gus said, including across the street. They were good for The Donut Pub. They provided target practice.

Decades later, the exalted Krispy Kreme arrived in the city. It opened its first store nine blocks away, in 1996. The company called itself “the biggest thing to hit New York since Nathan’s sold its first hot dog at Times Square.” The Pub would cream Krispy just the way it had sunk Dunkin’.

The Pub’s just plain inspirational, especially when you learn that one of its founders was a man named Buzzy Geduld. Buzzy went on to become a Wall Street trader who managed Herzog Heine Geduld until Merrill Lynch bought it in 2000 for about a billion dollars.

In short, you don’t mess with The Pub, even if you do have 9,700 stores. Sure, nearby stores display doughnuts — but only a couple of doughnuts.

As a Pub counter man said to me one night: “Why would you try to compete with a place that’s been here since ’64? Have some respect for the place.”

Night and day the Donut Pub serves all New York city diners.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Off-Broadway: Jesse Eisenberg Triumphs Because I'm His Cousin

Jesse Eisenberg stars in the off-broadway production of Asuncion
By Mitch  Broder

Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Social Network,” has triumphed in his New York playwriting debut because I am his cousin.

He is captivating audiences nightly with his delightful new play, “Asuncion,” because my grandmother was the sister of his great-grandfather.

Teamed with an excellent cast, he is irresistible in the lead role of Edgar because my mother is the first cousin of his grandmother.

The show is a hit and had barely opened before its run was extended because I am the second cousin of his mother.

Needless to say, applause is in order.

Also some for Jesse.

On second thought, give it to me, since he gets it every night, not that he doesn’t deserve it, but fair is fair. “Asuncion” is entertaining and Jesse is entertaining in it, but would he be where he is without me?

Actually, I wasn’t sure. So I called him to double-check.

Oscar nominated Jesse Eisenberg wrote and stars in Asuncion off-Broadway in New York City
Jesse and Camille Mana.
Personally, I trace his success to the day when our families gathered at the home of my cousin Judy, who is also Jesse’s aunt. I had just written about my cousin Hallie Eisenberg, who is also Jesse’s sister, and who was appearing in “The Women” on Broadway because my great-grandparents were her great-great-grandparents.

On that day, Jesse told me that he was pursuing a career in acting, though he had yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. Instead of suggesting that he give up, I assured him that I was all for it. He has since been in a couple of dozen movies. There was really no need to call him.

But I called anyway, and he called back, which I appreciated, because he could just as well have called, say, Justin Timberlake, who also blogs. We talked mostly about family. He told me that Judy wanted to hear from me. I assumed that it was because she wanted to thank me for her success.

I told him how much I had enjoyed “Asuncion,” for which I had been grateful, since his parents were with me in the audience that night. I told him that he was a pleasure to watch onstage, for which he was grateful and possibly even more likely to thank me for his success.

I asked him what it was like to star in a play that he had written. He said: “I have the same kind of stresses that I have from being in plays that I haven’t written. But there’s nothing more exhilarating. There’s nothing like the thrill of doing live theater.” Except maybe for being the one who has made the thrill possible.

Still, I proceeded subtly. I asked him whether he could think of any family members who had played a major role in his career. “I take a lot of comfort in having a close relationship with my parents,” he said.

Fine. I could live with that. For some people, parents outrank cousins.

He continued: “One of the byproducts of being in movies is that you feel a little less ownership over yourself. You see people on the street, and they act as if they know you. It helps me feel grounded, having a close relationship with my parents.”

OK; I couldn’t compete with his parents. And I really didn’t want to, after confiding to him that I felt the same way about my parents. So I switched strategies. I asked him if any previously unknown relatives had tried to profit from his success. Maybe I’d float to the top.

“No,” he said, “no one’s come out of the woodwork to ask me to invest in their lumberyard. Luckily, we come from a normal, healthy family, so no. Now that you mention it, I can only imagine what’s possible. But no, so far there’s been nothing uncomfortable.”

Jesse Eisenberg is starring in Asuncion in New York City
Jesse and Remy Auberjonois.
I had to get tough. I reminded him of the day at Judy’s. He didn’t remember our conversation. All right, then: In “Asuncion,” his character is a naïve journalist and blogger who makes shallow assumptions. Could he deny that I was the inspiration for that?

He could. He claimed that he based Edgar on his shallowness rather than mine. But he made a concession: The inspiration for his career may have come from his grandmother. “She’s a natural performer, and she was always outgoing,” he said. “If it came from anywhere, it came from her — and we share her.”

We do share her, or rather I share her with him, since she was my cousin before she was his grandmother. But that wasn’t quite what I was after, and time was running out. Jesse had to go to a voice-over session because my great-aunts were his great-great aunts, so I more or less asked for credit, and he finally gave it his best shot.

“Your father is in the entertainment industry,” he said thoughtfully. “I can’t say he’s done much for me, but I suppose he would have if I’d asked.

“As for you, I can’t think of anything — unless it’s one of those butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-China things. But if it was something like that, I appreciate it. Thank you.”

You’re welcome, Jesse.

I’m always here for you.

Jesse Eisenberg's off-broadway debut at the Cherry Lane Theatre

“Asuncion,” from Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, runs through December 18th. It's at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, in Manhattan. If you like it, you can thank me.