NYC has always been about food. It’s what I missed most when I moved away for 5 years. I’m not talking about the fancy foodie stuff either as I was still just a kid really, when I moved away. My friends and I probably never spent more than $15 a meal and most times it was well under 10 bucks. We were on art school budgets and if you knew how, you could eat really cheaply in NY, including knowing which art openings to go to when you knew there would be an open bar.
I don’t remember cooking at all during that era, even though I’m sure we did, but why would we? There was so much good food to be had. Like most people, we had our regular rotation of spots including the deli down the street from school on St. Mark’s Place where we picked up our bagels and egg sandwiches for breakfast before our first class. The deli guys knew all the Cooper Union kids so well that they were familiar with all our major projects and wished us luck on whatever grueling 4 hour critique we faced that day. Strangely enough, I didn’t drink coffee back then. I’m not really sure what I did to get through all those years of undergraduate and grad school but it wasn’t caffeine. Maybe being young was enough to pull all nighters.
During those early art school years when I was living on my own, first on Baxter Street in Chinatown and then on St. Mark’s in the East Village, I started discovering foods that were new to me. Having grown up eating the usual American-type fare as most kids growing up – you know, shake and bake chicken, pork chops, spaghetti and meatballs – I had a fairly typical American diet mixed in with Korean and other Asian food. But then I discovered Ethiopian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Ukrainian, Mexican and Thai. I was a vegetarian back then as were most of my friends, and I was even vegan for a few years as well, but there were so many options and I didn’t miss eating meat at all (years later, after 8 years of being a strict vegetarian, it was missing sushi that did me in).
These are the restaurants that I missed when I moved away, the places that I pined for until I would come back to NY in the summers and holidays: Abyssinia on Grand Street for Ethiopian, Ali Baba and Mamoun’s Falafel on MacDougal Street, Rose of India (really any of the places on Indian row) on 6th street (also the Indian Place on 1st ave up the steps that clearly won the contest for the place with the most over-the-top Christmas lights, an odd trend for Indian restaurants at that time), House of Vegetarian on Mott for vegan Chinese food, Benny’s Burritos for huge over-stuffed quesadillas, the Kiev and Veselka for Ukrainian in the East Village, Dojo for the soy or hijiki tofu dinners – at $2.95 and $3.25 respectively, the cheapest filling dinner you can find (and the prices, so I hear, are still not that different 20 years later), Holy Basil Thai food on 2nd ave, Cafe Mogador for their carrot ginger soup, Cafe Yaffa, Cafe Orlin, Sin-é, all on St. Marks, Angelika Kitchen, Life Cafe on 10th and Avenue B, Venerios Bakery for pastries.
Many of these places are still there, some are gone, but these are the places of my youth and a big part of the memories I have when I think about that era – East Village, NYC, circa ’88-91.
It’s funny, but I haven’t been back to any of those restaurants except for maybe Cafe Orlin and most recently, Venerios, since I moved back to NY in ’96, this time with Mark. Maybe because when I left the city on New Years Day in 1992, I wanted to leave it behind and bury those memories for good, as well as the people, the places, my friends and just start over. But we were walking around that neighborhood with the girls after school on Friday afternoon and we walked by an empty storefront on 2nd Avenue where a health food store used to be. I quickly peered in, I couldn’t see much, but this is when some of the memories flooded back. I had a sudden urge to go have some stuffed cabbage and pierogies at Veselka (the Kiev, as we knew it, is long gone) or sit on the bar stool of that tiny, narrow 2nd Avenue (I think) restaurant where we would get mushroom barley soup or whatever the soup of the day was (people of this era, please help me out – what was this place called!? I cannot remember. *edit: Yes! A reader came through – B&H Dairy ).
We didn’t end up doing that. Instead we made our way to some of the East Village comfort spots like the Takoyaki stand and take out sushi from Sunrise Mart, places we used to go to when we lived on 12th street. These are newer food memories, when the East Village became more Japanese and I was going to grad school at Tisch at NYU in the late 90s. I guess because these memories are fused with more recent trips with the girls, they don’t hold that same level of nostalgia. Maybe it’s just as well. Some memories are meant to be sacred. Maybe these places are better left untouched, suspended back in time when we were young and in art school.