Our recent trip to New York was the first time we had been back since our daughter was born almost twelve years ago. Prior to that, it was a regular weekend destination, heading back every couple of years, mainly in the Autumn. Some things had changed since we were last there – some for the better (the traffic was less choking due to the use of Toyota Prius as taxis) and some for the worse (Dean And Deluca at the Rockefeller Centre was a soulless, joyless place). London now exceeds New York on quality of coffee, selection of street food. New York still wins on overall “hairs on the back of the neck” moments though.
The things that had stayed the same were those drop in diners, restaurants and coffee shops and this is where the cities are different but neck and neck. On more than one occasion, some old haunts pulled us out of a “what do we want to eat” family stupor, something that is destined to descend into rancour if not arrested quickly.
In terms of old school style, the Union Square Coffee Shop has it in buckets. It feels like the kind of haunt that Harry Bosch would get his morning coffee at, if he lived in New York rather than LA (read about Harry here). I think I first came here twenty years ago and it hasn’t changed a bit. We dropped by for breakfast and I had my old favourite, egg’s benedict. It was perfectly fine but my daughter’s pancakes won her heart. The restaurant has a reputation of attracting the beautiful people (reference the website) with super-attractive waiting staff. I’m not sure what we were doing there then!
Here’s a clip of Gisele Bündchen launching a Victoria’s Secret perfume at the Coffee Shop. They often have Brazilian dance nights – a real community resource for the beautiful people! Personally, I was drawn back by the excellent breakfasts but each to their own.
The decor, furniture and fittings epitomise what a Brit thinks of as an American diner, as visualised by Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.
This is one of the most recognisable paintings of the last hundred years. The painting recalls those classic Sinatra albums such as “Sings For The Lonely” and “In The Wee Small Hours”. The couple at the bar staring and not talking. The guy sitting in the shadows, nursing a drink. The server attending to his chores, hot water brewing in the background. Hopper painted the picture after he and his wife had taken accurate notes of the potential image, something they often did.
Night + brilliant interior of cheap restaurant. Bright items: cherry wood counter + tops of surrounding stools; light on metal tanks at rear right; brilliant streak of jade green tiles 3/4 across canvas–at base of glass of window curving at corner. Light walls, dull yellow ocre [sic] door into kitchen right.
Very good looking blond boy in white (coat, cap) inside counter. Girl in red blouse, brown hair eating sandwich. Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back–at left. Light side walk outside pale greenish. Darkish red brick houses opposite. Sign across top of restaurant, dark–Phillies 5c cigar. Picture of cigar. Outside of shop dark, green. Note: bit of bright ceiling inside shop against dark of outside street–at edge of stretch of top of window.
It was thought that the painting was inspired by a diner in Greenwich village, roughly a mile south of where we ate. Hopper nerds have tried to track the exact location down and suggested that it was on the intersection of 7th Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street. It transpires that the timings didn’t work and the plot was a petrol station around the time of Hopper’s work. Therefore the work is his interpretation of typically American diner.
One of the features I like about the Union Square joint is the potential for different interactions to take place.
We set in the banquette booths, semi-circular in shape with scuffed fabric. It was perfect for a family to chat to plan the day’s activities.
Then there’s the adjacent tables where business people and friends met to organise the next deal. There’s a venture capitalist based across the street and the place is the meet up to finesse the last minute details of the imminent pitch.
There’s the bar area, the place for nursing a drink on your lonesome or the intimate liaisons later in the evening.
Even the back of house areas have a certain charisma. Here’s the overflow tables, the phone booths and the service door:
The diner also has a reputation for good background music. When we walked in they were playing “Any Major Dude” by Steely Dan and we also got some Black Crowes. It put me in mind of this great Tom Waits album.
“Nighthawks At The Diner” was actually recorded at the Record Plant studio in Los Angeles. The cover was designed by Cal Schenkel, inspired by Hopper’s painting. Waits and his crew had looked around for a suitable venue and everywhere they found was a “toilet” as Bones Howe, the producer eloquently described it. They therefore kitted the studio out with tables and chairs, invited a crowd in, plied them with booze and let the tape roll. The album stands up as one of Waits’s first classics and features the fine chorus line from “Better Out Without A Wife”,
I don’t have to ask permission if I want to go out fishing
Drop by the Coffee Shop if you are in the Big Apple – it won’t let you down.
There are a few other similar joints we would recommend too. They are all longstanding eateries that we dropped by this time round having been before and weren’t disappointed.:
- The Grey Dog Cafe on University Place and 12th Street is just a few blocks south of Union Square. This is a stripped floorboards, shabby chic type of place which is again does a decent breakfast and coffee. Details here.
- Fanelli’s is an old favourite. Last but one time we were there, we bumped into John Malkovich. It is a great lunch pit stop, brisk service getting you on your way and killer bloody memories. It’s been used for film shoots and still draws the punters in to the front door on Prince and Mercer Street.
- Our final selection is the Odeon is the most sophisticated. In Tribeca on West Broadway and Thomas Street, we grabbed a couple of breakfasts here, including my birthday. They do a lovely if pricey in-house granola. It is a bit more of a treat joint rather than an everyday place.
The Odeon was central to the rejuvenation of Tribeca (the Triangle Below Canal Street) in the eighties. The trio (two Brit brothers) and an American that opened the restaurant chose the name as a reference to the British cinema chain. It has retained its charm. Linda Stein, the former Ramones manager, commented on the new restaurant:
For a time, it was the place. The interesting part is, it was one of the only places that was the place almost any time of day: Sunday brunch or lunch—it wasn’t only after dark. The other thing is, if you ever had jury duty, [the restaurant was close enough to the courts that] you could eat lunch there. It’s the only upside to jury duty. You can have oysters. You can get drunk. And you can get yourself so drunk that they throw you out of jury duty. You get $40 a day from the government for jury duty, but you always spend more at the Odeon.
All three are worth a visit.