Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Strangely New York: At Last, Have Your Cake and Drink It, Too

Jane’s Sweet Buns New York City Bakery Interior
By Mitch Broder

Jane Danger believes that New York City doesn’t need another cupcake shop.

She believes that what it needs instead is a rum-spiked cinnamon-bun shop.

Jane’s Sweet Buns New York City Bakery Vintage Destination
It’s the logic of a bartender who’s a baker, but it fits the ethos of the East Village, which is luckily where she has just unveiled Jane’s Sweet Buns.

She has taken a Hells Angels souvenir shop and turned it into a tearoom — but the sort of tearoom that a Hells Angel might patronize for a snack. It’s got sticky buns with bourbon. It’s got raspberry tartlets with gin. It’s got Aperol tarts and Harvey Wallbanger cake. It’s got both ends of a meal in a pastry.

The store’s concept, in fact, is “pastries inspired by cocktails,” with is why the pastries have names like the Frenchie and the Dark and Stormy. Within this concept, Jane sees herself as what you could call the buntender. “I’m saying, ‘I made this for you. I hope you like it. If you don’t like it, I’ll make you something else.’”

That’s been her credo at nearby spots like Cienfuegos, where she has worked for Ravi DeRossi, a cocktail impresario. Inspired by her profession, she started whipping up spirited sweets. She brought them to her boss. He liked them. He became her partner at Jane’s Sweet Buns.

Jane’s Sweet Buns New York City Bakery Alcohol Pastries
As to cupcakes, she’s not against them. But she’s sure there are enough of them. “I think they’re cute. I’ll eat a cupcake. It’s just an oversaturated market. And if I were to make a cupcake it would have to be different. It would have to be, like, really weird.”

Despite her signature ingredient, her pastries are still pastries. Alcohol gets upstaged by things like banana cream cheese frosting. And though she favors uncommon flavorings, she’s not getting too exotic: “We don’t have any muffins with crickets in them. Yet.”

Jane’s also done fashion modeling, which is where she took on the name of Danger, but her décor is less Witch’s Castle than it is Merry Old Land of Oz. Jane’s is a sunny place where you're served baked goods on mix-and-match china. The baked goods are identified by Jane’s sunny hand-lettered labels.

She doesn’t know if she’ll slow down the cupcake, but, regardless, her goal’s more personal: “I have energy. I have to get it out somehow.”

And the way she sees it, she’s getting it out in a way that’s good for nearly everyone: “It is fun to bring booze into every facet of your day.”

Jane’s Sweet Buns New York City Bakery Interior
Don't forget your moist towelette.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jimbo's Hamburger Place: An Atmosphere You'll Never Forget

Jimbos Hamburger Place

By Mitch Broder

Walking into Jimbo’s Hamburger Place is less liking walking into a place than it is like walking into a hamburger.

You inhale hamburger steam. You see through hamburger vapor. You are having a hamburger sauna.

You’re engulfed by the greasy haze of decades of hamburger.

You believe you’re getting a film.

If you’re a fairly antiseptic person you will tell yourself to flee. But since you want a really good  hamburger, you will tell yourself to sit. You will allow yourself to drift back into fifties luncheonette culture. You will be rewarded with “The Best Chopmeat Money Can Buy.”

Jimbo’s Hamburger Place New York City Interior Counter
There aren’t many places left like Jimbo’s. There aren’t many places left called Places. Jimbo’s is a refuge from a city of chefs trying to make the hamburger something it’s not. It has a list of twenty-three burgers, but the most exotic topping is blue cheese. (It also has the one with the fried egg on top. There’s a reason it’s called Texas Burger.)

Jimbo’s has indeed been cultivating burger mist since the fifties, at least as Jimbo’s, whether or not Jimbo was actually named Jimbo. He is said to have been a man who came from Arkansas, which is plausible; Arkansas is a cattle-raising state.

Jimbo is believed to have sold the restaurant to a man named Gus, who was Greek, which is also plausible, since there’s no reason to make it up. In the late seventies it was taken over by Mahmoud Mostafa, who is Egyptian, which, too, is plausible, since he is still the owner.

Jimbo’s Hamburger Place New York City Interior Andy Warhol Table
That's Andy's and my table. And Abe at the counter.
Mahmoud, who answers to “Jim,” runs the place with his son Abe. He renovates it every decade or so, so it has the look of no particular era. He says he’s closing down in about two weeks for this decade’s renovation. It won’t be massive, he told me. Just the same, I’d get over there now.

When I was over there, I got the table by the window, which was lucky because it was Andy Warhol’s table, and because there are only three tables. Abe told me that Andy used to sit there on Saturday mornings. Michael Jackson never sat there, he added. He preferred to order in.

I ordered the Beef Burger Deluxe. I received a trapezoidal mound of perfectly cooked chopmeat that was hot, steamy, and juicy. The tomato was white; I didn’t care. The Coke was canned; I didn’t care. The burger was delicious and the fries were delicious, and every diner in New York City ought to just give up on tomatoes.

I asked for the men’s room. I was led out to an iron gate that said “360 E. 55th St. Service Entrance.” A man unlocked the gate and pointed me to a bathroom that held, among other things, a mop and bucket and a pair of pants. I didn’t care about that, either. I just didn’t want to run into the guy who owned the pants.

Jimbo’s isn’t dainty. But that’s why it is precious. You deal with things like the grease fog. Just like the manager does.

“You go home with it,” Abe told me, referring to himself. “If you’re going out at night you have to shower. Unless you want to smell like burgers.”

Jimbo’s Hamburger Place New York City Vintage Destination Restroom

Beef up at Jimbo’s Hamburger Place, 991 First Avenue, between 54th and 55th streets, in Manhattan.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Strangely New York: The Vintage New York Handyman's Special

New York City Street Scene First Avenue New York City Handyman
Summer may be ending — but Santa's on his way! By train! Wave back to him (he's in the locomotive) at Frenchman (aka Frenchmen) Air Conditioning Sales and Service, at 333 First Avenue. Frosty the Snowman is in the caboose, just as in real life.

New York City Street Scene Madison Avenue Men’s Suits
Frenchman also repairs TVs, so they might want to send a guy out to tackle the sets in the window at the My.Suit store at 360 Madison Avenue. No one at My.Suit can explain what the televisions have to do with the suits. Especially not the guy in the suit.

New York City Street Scene Rocco Restaurant Greenwich Village
Meanwhile, at Rocco, in the Village, another repairman has put the RE back in RESTAURANT. Through Vintage New York, the owner, Tony DaSilva, offered free dinner to anyone who could fix his neon. Nobody won; the sign guy finally showed. Frenchman may want to get his number, to see if the guy can put the r back in Frenchman.

New York City Street Scene West Street Diner
Repair is apparently not on the menu at this long-lost diner, on West Street between Leroy and Clarkson. The once-charming classic is now an ad for bedbug prevention, which doesn't do much to spark the appetite.

New York City Street Scene Vintage Sign
The billboard at Leroy and Washington, around the corner from the diner, says the world, too, is beyond repair. I say think what u want. And by the way, if you want meat, Pat LaFrieda has moved to New Jersey. Maybe that's what's really got the billboard guy's beef in a bun.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Marchi's Restaurant: New York City's Longest Wait for a Menu

Marchi’s Restaurant New York City Midtown Garden

By Mitch Broder

In the end, it doesn’t matter that they have no menu at Marchi’s, because they bring you every food that would be on the menu if they had one.

Marchi’s Restaurant New York City Midtown Antipasto
This is just the beginning.
They bring you fresh fruits and vegetables. They bring you tuna and salami. They bring you lasagna. They bring you fried fish. They bring you more vegetables. Then they bring the main course.

That would be the roast chicken and the sliced roast veal, along with the cooked mushrooms and the fresh tossed salad. Then they bring more fruit, cheese, lemon fritters, and crostoli. The only thing they don’t bring is seconds. Then again, no one has asked.

This is the meal they serve six nights a week. This is the meal you eat if you want dinner. It is a five-course Italian feast in Manhattan that has yet to cost fifty dollars — but is finally going to, starting next month, so go now to save two bucks.

A few restaurants have no menu because they are trying to be chic. Marchi’s has no menu because it was Lorenzo and Francesca’s apartment. They started a restaurant in it because Lorenzo had a bad hernia operation and couldn’t keep working in construction. But both of them could cook.

Marchi’s Restaurant New York City Midtown Interior Dining Tables
This was in 1930, when Louis De Marco lived upstairs. He smelled the Marchis’ cooking each night till he couldn’t take it anymore. He begged to join them for dinner. He said he’d pay fifty cents. He brought friends, and they brought friends, and everyone brought fifty cents.

By 1935, the entire apartment was a dining room. The Marchis still made one dinner, though they made a different dinner each night. During the war, because of shortages, they made the same dinner each night. After the war, they went back to different dinners. But by then it was too late.

“Our customers weren’t in favor of that,” says Lorenzo and Francesca’s son Mario. “They said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It lasted a year or two. They wanted what we had been doing, not what we were doing.” The family agreed on one meal. They’ve been serving it for sixty-six years.

Lorenzo and Francesca are gone, except on the walls, but the restaurant is run by Mario and his wife Christine, and Mario’s brothers, John and Robert. I sat with Mario, Christine, and John one afternoon, and they shared their history. Then they shared their autograph book.

It contains names including Sophia Loren, Joe DiMaggio, and Donald O’Connor. It also contains names that none of us could read. But the brothers recall serving Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Nat King Cole, Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Toscanini and Pavarotti.

And Grace Kelly.

And Liberace.

Today the restaurant has five rooms, yet it still feels like Grandma and Grandpa’s house. And it still feels like a secret club: Along with no menu, it has no sign. The only thing on the outside is a family coat of arms. Christine says people peek in and ask, “Is this an embassy?”

Dinner is $49.75 till September 1st, when it becomes $51.75. I haven’t tried it yet, but the Marchis fed me their sweet crunchy crostoli.

I can now say confidently that I would pay $51.75 for five courses including that pastry, along with the opportunity to make absolutely no decisions for a whole night.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strangely New York: For Contrary Canines, the Tables are Turned

Barking Dog Restaurant New York City Midtown Vintage Destination

By Mitch Broder

Several hundred dogs emailed to say they were offended by the sight of the plastic dogs in front of three New York City restaurants owned by David Burke.

They found Burke’s whimsical dog ornaments to be insensitive and demeaning, not to mention inedible. Some of the writers also complained about their smartphones’ tiny keyboards.

“Sure, Burke, just perpetuate the stereotype of a mindless mongrel standing outside on a leash with his tail in the air,” wrote an angry border collie. “Yeah, we’re all just patiently waiting for our master to polish off his great big plate of Roasted Seawater Soaked Organic Chicken.”

“You know what I’d like to see?” demanded an irate affenpinscher. “I’d like to see a dog restaurant with a fake person standing outside.”

I will not call Burke on the real dogs’ behalf, since he’s already mad that his fake dogs get stolen. But regarding the sarcastic restaurant request, I think I can help.

Indignant dogs should drag their owners to 34th Street between Third and Lex, where they will find a café called Barking Dog. It is dog-friendly, though not friendly enough to actually let dogs in. But it has dog water pots near the outdoor tables. And it has a fake person standing outside.

The person is an artist, and the artist is a sculpture called “The Right Light.” The artist’s artist is J. Seward Johnson Jr.

Johnson is famous for his bronze statues of regular people. He is also an heir to Johnson and Johnson, which makes Listerine, which should have a dog version.

The sculpture belongs to the Affinia Dumont hotel next door. A staff member there told me that “people talk to it all the time.” Jenée Castellanos of The Sculpture Foundation told me that Johnson made it in 1983 and that it’s been at the hotel for about twenty-five years.

As for Barking Dog, it has several menu selections with “barking dog” in the name, as well as shepherd’s pie, though the menu spells it wrong.

Bitter dogs are free to mock the person-sculpture to their hearts’ content.

Any other means of expressing their hostility is not condoned here.

Barking Dog Restaurant New York City Midtown David Burke Restaurant

Catch “The Right Light” at Barking Dog, 150 East 34th Street, between Third and Lexington avenues, in Manhattan.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Automat: A New York City Icon is Slotted for a Comeback!

Second Avenue Deli New York City Upper East Side Automat Panel
By Mitch Broder

Your nickels won’t go into the slots, which is best, since they’d buy paper food.

Still, you can’t deny that the Automat is back.

Not the entire Automat, but a twelve-door section of one, complete with windows, slots, knobs, and prices from one to four nickels. It opens, so to speak, at 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning, along with the new First Avenue branch of the 2nd Ave Deli.

It used to be in the Second Avenue branch of the 2nd Ave Deli. There, too, it was just inside the entrance. When that store closed in 2006, the relic was put into storage. I’ve been waiting for it to come out ever since. The owners humored me with an exclusive preview.

Second Avenue Deli New York City Upper East Side Automat Panel Closeup
It is magnificent. It evokes a beloved tradition of New York City, even if the tradition did get its start in Philadelphia. In keeping with its home, it offers only Jewish deli food, and only pictures of that. But you still want to deposit your coins and turn a knob.

Of course, the opening on Tuesday is actually more for the deli. And that’s fitting, since, unlike the Automat, it has survived. The new deli is also magnificent. (It wasn’t finished, so I couldn’t take pictures.) And it marks a milestone for one of the best-known families in Jewish deli history.

The 2nd Ave Deli opened at the corner of Tenth Street in 1954, which was late in the day for Jewish delis. But Abe Lebewohl didn’t care how late it was. Having worked his way up through the deli world, he turned the tiny former luncheonette into a 130-seat institution officially approved by Jackie Mason.

On March 4, 1996, on his way to make a bank deposit, Abe Lebewohl was shot and killed. His family resolved to keep his life’s work alive. His brother Jack ran the deli till a rent dispute closed it ten years later. But Jack’s sons Josh and Jeremy reopened the next year on 33rd Street — and are now about to open a second branch, for the first time.

As for the real Automat, it predated the 2nd Ave Deli by half a century. Joe Horn and Frank Hardart launched it in Philadelphia in 1902. The first New York City Automat opened in 1912. By mid-century, dozens were dispensing the likes of Salisbury steak, baked beans, and pumpkin pie.

Second Avenue Deli New York City Upper East Side Vintage Automat Photo
An Automat photograph made in 1942 by J. Baylor Roberts.  From the National Geographic Image Collection.
The mission of the Automat was to sell good food cheap. The appeal of it was such that moguls and movie stars went there anyway. It got poor people through the Depression and got rich people into the papers. It was good for everyone. Especially for Joe Horn and Frank Hardart.

At its height, it appeared in movies, songs, books, and magazines. Its strange marriage of automation and humanity was unique. In a book called “The Automat,” the authors quote a company executive: “New York in those days had only two types: Park Avenue and the workers. But they all came to the Automat.”

New York again has only those two types. But it has no more Automats. They all succumbed to the usual scourges of cities — notably, the suburbs. Plus food has just gotten too serious, and besides, it’s gone up too much. To buy a 2nd Ave Deli pastrami sandwich at the Automat, you’d need 319 nickels.

But it’s a good pastrami sandwich. And the new deli is a great tribute. “We want to make sure that it lives up to what my uncle would have wanted,” Josh Lebewohl told me.

He also assured me that he, too, cherishes the 2nd Ave Deli’s Automat: “We’re serving classic Jewish food, and the Automat is part of classic New York.”

Second Avenue Deli New York City Upper East Side Vintage Destination
The new deli also has this nice clock.
Drop some coin starting Tuesday at the new 2nd Ave Deli, 1442 First Avenue, at 75th Street, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Strangely New York: Bag Your Bumlingar Jordgubb at Sockerbit

By Mitch Broder

I admire a store that’s named after a lump of sugar, even if persons not fluent in Swedish might think it was named after a tool kit.

The store is Sockerbit, which earns a välkommen simply for being a new store in the West Village that isn’t named after Marc Jacobs.

My admiration may seem as odd as the store, in light of my visceral reaction to the likewise austere Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Sockerbit, after all, is so utterly, blindingly white that even people besides me have looked in and thought it was still under construction.

But Sockerbit at least doesn’t fancy itself a lab. Outside of touting natural ingredients, it is unrepentantly a candy store. You walk in, you squint, you grab a white scoop, you fill a white bag with neon Scandinavian sweets, at $12.99 a pound.

Once you acclimate, it can be jolly. It has a whole wall of exotic candies — 148 different ones, soon to be 168. And they have jolly names, at least if you’re not Swedish, and maybe even if you are. It’s hard to picture anyone saying skumbananer with a straight face.

That’s the name for the banana variety of the store’s namesake. Sockerbit refers to a sugar cube but also to a chewy cubic marshmallow. The store, in fact, is modeled after it; everything’s white with rounded corners. You are consumed by the marshmallow you have come to consume.

The store is the creation of Stefan Ernberg, who is from Sweden, and his wife, Florencia Baras, who is from Argentina. They say they’re the first to tap what they see as a giant U.S. market for Scandinavian candy. Americans, they seem to hope against hope, may have had their fill of Snickers.

The store was popular while I was there. Lots of people came in and scooped. Stefan and Florencia said that the licorice flavors are among the best sellers. Those include kanderade häxvrål, salta bläckfiskar, salmiakmatta, and smultronmatta. You can check my diacritical marks when you go.

The store sells a few other foods, including Swedish meatball mix and lingonberries, so you can eat at home the way they do at IKEA. And Stefan says that next month they plan to add a little café serving Swedish coffee and cinnamon rolls. That’ll block more of the white.

Ironically, the Swedish candy Americans know is the one they don’t have. American Swedish Fish, Florencia says, are made in Canada, and Swedish Swedish Fish can’t be imported.

But they do have sur skumfisk. And pasta basta cola. And gröna grodor.

I could go on, but I won’t.

Except to say ... ha en söt dag!


Pick your smågodis at Sockerbit, 89 Christopher Street, between Bleecker Street and Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

New York Kitty: The Algonquin Princess is Mine — For a Moment

By Mitch Broder

I entered the Algonquin lobby, marched up to Olmedo the waiter, and asked: “Do you know where I could find Matilda?” He knew I meant business.

He looked around. He pointed to the back of the room. There I found her — alone at a table for six. I approached her chair. She glanced up. “At last we meet,” I smiled. Her eyes narrowed. She said nothing. She glanced back down. She licked her chest.

Still, I was happy to see her. I’d been there before, and she was nowhere to be found, since she hides under a lamp table. She’s a big gray fluffy ragdoll, which is to say that she’s a cat, which is to say that she’s the Algonquin cat, though she’s still not allowed on the furniture.

Her debutante ball is on Wednesday, but I wanted to meet her alone. I had known her retired predecessor, who was also Matilda. It’s not a coincidence. The Algonquin has had ten cats in eighty years; the first seven were Hamlet, the last three have been Matilda. It’s tough to come up with cat names.

The Algonquin is the hotel famous for its witty round table of the twenties, whose members included Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott. I always wanted to be like them. You don’t always get what you want. But I get to lounge with their ghosts in the lobby. And I get to play with the cat.

I took pictures of her on the chair, which won’t affect her, since she’s already grounded. I lovingly scratched her neck, which I was confident she tolerated. She hopped down and clawed an armchair, which was fine, since she has no claws. I like to think that she did it because the guy in the chair was wearing a baseball cap in the Algonquin.

She trotted to the maître d’ stand, and I obediently followed. I looked down at her. She looked up at me. She took a leap and landed on the keyboard. She awaited my next move. She had found me amusing. I was sure to be invited to join the round table for lunch.

Henry the waiter gave me a special pen with which to prolong the amusement. Matilda frolicked with me, and people in the lobby began to notice. A couple told me that they were frequent guests yet had never known of the cat. I proceeded to educate them, and Matilda sneaked off. I understood. I’d had my shot.

In that, I knew that I was probably more fortunate than most, which was confirmed by Edwin Garcia, the front office supervisor. “We have people coming from all over the world just looking for Matilda,” he told me. “There are people who come to stay at the Algonquin because Matilda lives here.”

Matilda, in fact, has a spokeswoman, Alice de Almeida. (She also has an e-mail address, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.)

Alice observed: “She’s the only one I know who can sleep on the job.”

Which could make Matilda the Algonquin legend that I want to be like most of all.


Play cat and mouse with Matilda at the Algonquin, 59 West 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in Manhattan

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Strangely New York: Leghead Knows What to Do With the Body

By Mitch Broder

I saw a man with four legs, and two of them were on a skateboard.

The other two were growing out of his head.

Actually, they were growing out of the butt growing out of his head. Of the two likely nicknames for himself, he was wise enough to choose Leghead.

His lower legs were on the skateboard because he’s been skateboarding since he was nine. His upper legs were growing out of his head because he is an artist. He makes art using fiberglass female body parts as his canvas. He sells his works on the street. He is always symmetrically leggy.

He made other kinds of art until about a year ago, when he found discarded mannequins outside the Prada store at Broadway and Prince Street. He did what any of us would do: Take them home and enrobe them in comic-book pages, subway maps, paint, and wheatpaste.

Mysteriously, he discovered that a leg unit fit his head. “I did a collage on it,” he writes on his Web site, “and it was my new hat.” He skates with it, and people photograph him. He told me that it isn’t heavy. He didn’t offer to let me try it on. I was disappointed and yet grateful.

Leghead is usually on Prince, near the scene of his rebirth, along with an alfresco gallery of his creations. His pieces range in price from around $100 for a leg to around $4,000 for a body. Torsos are in the middle.

That makes him high-end. And in that sense, you could say that he’s no different than neighbors like Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and J. Crew.

But Leghead revives the street theater once so common in New York. He’s a character, a breed that seems headed for extinction.

He’s fun to look at. He’s nice to talk to. His art is skillful, if gruesome.

And though he’s expensive, at least Leghead is not another mall chain store.



Have some kicks with Leghead, on the street.