Waiters in red vests – 2 venerable NYC restaurant holdouts
It’s an almost-lost world – restaurants from the mythical “old New York” – places with checkered tablecloths and old-school waiters in red vests.
The New York Public Library recently began archiving historical menus (http://menus.nypl.org/) detailing the story of the city’s long-running culinary story. When you have centuries of global immigrant influx, and a reputation of world-class sophistication and refinement, it goes without saying that you will have a dining scene that is constantly evolving, and constantly enriched.
NYC’s restaurant-going public is notoriously fickle. Common thought says that opening an eatery here is a move verging on financial suicide. Which is why it is extraordinary that a handful of places have survived the ages.
There are those venerable places that get all the attention – Peter Luger Steakhouse, Delmonico’s, Fraunces’ Tavern (George Washington’s old haunt) etc. More interesting are the spots that survive under the radar.
Two such restaurants grace the Village – “Spain” in the west, and “Lanza’s” in the East. These are places with staunchly traditional menus, timelessly kitschy and unpretentious decor, and old-world manners – family affairs where a carafe of house wine is de rigueur and where the same patrons have been coming for decades. They are a dying breed…
Lanza’s, on 1st Avenue in the East Village has served the neighborhood for more than a century. In its heyday the area was strongly Italian, and it’s doubtful that the menu has changed much since that era. It’s a cliche to say a restaurant has food that “grandma would make”, but if the sentiment is to be applied, this is the place. The food is basic and isn’t earth-shattering, but it certainly hits the spot. In a city where cuisine is constantly re-interpreted, Lanza’s is refreshingly plain. The decor is what one might expect – murals of Vesuvius and the like. There is a backyard that is wonderful in the warm season, and afterwards you can hit up the neighboring Di Robertis pastry shop, itself from 1904, or Veniero’s , which dates to 1894.
I once had a colleague whose parents lived above Lanza’s after emigrating from Sicily. During the 1920’s, on the occasion of a wedding or funeral, the restaurant would prepare a spread and deliver it for free. There is also a history of the place being a stop for 20th century mafiosi.
Across town, is Spain, a restaurant dating from the 1960’s. The decor is sparse – the emphasis is on the gracious service and the food, which is excellent. Every order comes with a spread of free small plates – chorizo, meatballs, mussels, or whatever else is being made. Salad comes in a plastic 60’s era bowl. The waiters pull out the chair for you and place your napkin on your lap. Like Lanza’s, the dishes are straightforward – seafood stews, paella, etc. And like Lanza’s, many of the patrons are longtime regulars.
If you’re not in the mood for a full-on dinner, you can sit at the bar, have a 4$ glass of wine, and they will still bring you free tapas!
It’s said that 90 percent of Lanza’s costumers are long-time regulars. Both it, and Spain, are decidedly unhip, and are not attracting younger people the way they once did. The waiters themselves are pushing the age ceiling. All indicators point to an inevitable demise, especially given the prime real estate they inhabit. I imagine the sharks are already circling. It is a shame – these are the last places of their kind. But New York is not good to the old –
Both places are reasonably priced and certainly worth a visit.
Posted on March 5, 2012, in food, NYC present, Uncategorized and tagged food, lanza's, new york, new york city, nyc, old-world, restaurant, spain, traditional. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.