Magazine | August 13, 2018, Issue

Requiem for a Restaurant

(Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Richard Brookhiser mourns the Coffee Shop.

This is an obituary so there will be names. Charles Milite, one of the owners of The Coffee Shop, announced that the Union Square restaurant will be closing on October 11 after a 28-year run.

The preceding restaurant in the space was Nick’s Coffee Shop, a typical New York Greek-run diner. The new owners, Milite, Eric Petterson, and Carolyn Benitez, all former Wilhelmina models, kept Nick around for the first few years for local color, but they added color of their own.

The atmosphere was slightly Brazilian, slightly mid-century — the era when the Jetsons were the future. The back room, called the World Room, had a nook with a gas fireplace surmounted by globes, like the basement rec room of an eccentric uncle. The front room had semicircular banquettes with the seats upholstered in dark tropical frondage.

The three functions of a restaurant are to eat, to observe, and to meet. The valedictory reviews scoffed at the food — unreasonably. The Coffee Shop was not haute cuisine or Asian confusion, but comfort food, 23 hours a day. If you ordered intelligently you did fine. The Latin American dishes were the best over the long haul, for consistency and modest zing: shrimp baiano, ropa vieja, huevos rancheros. Salads were decent. The hamburger was for a long time excellent — huge, and you could order it rare — then it fell off, then recovered. There was all-American spaghetti and meatballs. For drinks you went south of the border: batidas, mojitos, caipirinhas. After two decades of the Coffee Shop I tried the last in Rio, where I found them to be half the size and twice as strong. Quarter power was good enough for me. One day out of curiosity I tried guaraná, described on the menu as Brazilian Energy Soda. It was pleasant; then I realized I wanted no coffee for the rest of the day. If rocket fuel were caffeine it would be guaraná. The kiss at the end of every (guaraná-less) meal was café con leche. The foam was splendid. Over time everyone got used to my fixation on keeping my cup warm by putting the saucer upside down over the mouth. Flip, clap; you were saying? I hope my regulars, Richard Snow and Jonathan Leaf, liked the selections; I dragged them there often enough.

Since restaurants are places of public accommodation, they are also observatories. The Coffee Shop was the Serengeti of humanity. Tourists wore fanny packs and addled expressions. Hipsters came to be looked at. At noon came a few suits. Sometimes my wife and I would focus on noses. There could be giants, peninsulas, real toucans. The young displayed flesh. An Isaac Bashevis Singer novel describes a Jewish refugee marveling at whores in Times Square — meaning movie billboards of the 1940s. Well his grandson can go to Kiryas Joel, I’ll take Manhattan. In warm weather the Coffee Shop had two ranks of outdoor tables, one flanking the park, one running down 16th Street to the west. Buskers performed: bagpipers, bubble blowers, banjo players. Some performances were unpleasant: A limping Russian derelict harassed the waitresses. Once I saw a fistfight: One well-dressed young black man simply set upon another. That was different. In midsummer the setting sun drew its fingers over the façades of the buildings on the side street, as if reluctant to go. The housings of the awnings offered nests for sparrows, rent-free. They sat up there, half-hidden, crying Me! Me! Me!

The most important function of a restaurant is meeting. You can eat at home and observe on a bus. For an hour of business or pleasure nothing beat the Coffee Shop. Famous people agreed with me: I would see Mark Green, Eliot Spitzer, Sonia Sotomayor. For political balance I brought Pat Buckley and Conrad Black (separately; Conrad was too retiring to have been quite at ease with Pat). At peak hours the noise level was a problem: big rooms full of yak, plus rock. After years of attendance I had clout enough to be able to get the volume turned down (sometimes). I lost tranches of hearing even so. Still a booth in the back corner was like the captain’s quarterdeck.

Day after day I went to meet the people who worked there. It was not true as rumor had it that all the staff were models, but the comely were over-represented. There was Charlie the young heart-of-oak Englishman who looked like a Milanese daydream but talked like Alfred P. Doolittle. Tim was the all-American son of a Pennsylvania tree farmer. We saw him playing a centurion in an off-off production of Salome — talk about casting against type — and he was offered contracts. But he went back to Pennsylvania to farm trees. The young women had variable fortunes. Nikki told us that her agent was hocking her to lose ten pounds. Damn his eyes he was probably right for fashion photography, though Bernini would have sculpted her as is. She also said late one December that her boyfriend was spending New Year’s Eve with an ex, but he had assured her that was all right since the ex was a dyke. We did not believe this explanation. One young couple married, had a baby, split, then started living together again to raise their child. I was equally moved by their impulsiveness, their earnestness, and the struggle between them. On 9/11 maître d’ Carlos Sosa, noble young man, walked three miles to the former World Trade Towers to see if there was any way he could help. There was nothing to do but inhale the dead. They were young, amusing, gracious, open-ended, launched on a sea of uncertainty.

My wife and I each had book parties there, hers for The Golden Condom, mine for Founders’ Son. For my soundtrack I supplied the greatest hits of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the New Orleans virtuoso and staunch Unionist.

What killed it was rent. The opening of the Coffee Shop coincided with the beginning of Union Square’s transition from druggie-infested dustbowl to crown jewel. The creation became too expensive for the creators. So it goes.

The restaurant will go out on a political footnote. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, socialist phenom, was a waitress there. Now she is going to Congress. I ate there for 28 years, and I only went there. I was luckier.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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