After an exhaustive search, I was selected to sit in for Howard Seftel during his well-earned vacation on the basis of two criteria. First, I was willing to do it. Second, and this was the clincher, I eat on a daily basis. But since a large portion of my diet consists of food prepared by teenagers with name tags--a sobering thought--the question remained: What sort of culinary establishment might I, having the discerning palate of a post-hibernation wolverine, presume to judge?
Then it occurred to me. As a movie critic, I was best fitted to review the classic eatery of the cinema--the coffee shop. In its way, the coffee shop is as integral to American film as the saloon.
Think about it. For every movie scene you can recall that's set in a fancy restaurant, you can probably think of a dozen set in gritty working-class chow houses--12 Alice Doesn't Live Here Any Mores for every My Dinner With Andre. This probably has something to do with the relationship between such restaurants and another classic motif in American storytelling--the road. A coffee shop is a perfect place for plot-weary characters to pause from the action for a bite to eat and a few minutes of character development.
It was in a coffee shop that Harry first came on to Sally. It was in a coffee shop that Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs planned their hideously fated heist; and it was in such a setting that Jules and Vincent, in the same director's Pulp Fiction, discussed the seeming miracle by which their lives were spared.
In The Sting, Robert Redford romanced a hash-house waitress who turned out to be a hit woman. In Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, it was from the drudgery of her similar waitress job that Mia Farrow escaped into the movies. It was with cockney waitress Bette Davis that Leslie Howard fell in love in the 1934 Of Human Bondage; and it was with New York diner waitress Bridget Fonda that cop Nicolas Cage shared his lottery winnings in It Could Happen To You. In My Cousin Vinnie, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei struggled with the two choices on the menu of an Alabama greasy spoon--"Breakfast" and "Lunch."
It was after thwarting an attempted robbery in a coffee shop that Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry uttered the immortal line "Go ahead, make my day." Hoffa postulated that if the paranoid union leader had gotten out of the car and gone into the truck stop, instead of sitting in his car, he might not have been assassinated; and had Marion Crane pressed on to the "big diner about 10 miles down the road" that Norman Bates mentioned in Psycho, she just might have avoided all that unpleasantness in the shower.
But it's Barry Levinson who made the ultimate film of the genre, logically titled Diner. The key setting of this gem was the Fells Point Diner, a Baltimore Pullman-car eatery where a bunch of young men--Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser--sat slinging the bull and putting off adulthood.
So, where can we in the Valley go to indulge in the same pastimes? Understand, I'm not talking about the likes of Angels, 5 & Diner or Ed Debevic's. Such places are fun in their own rights, but they're coffee shops only in a self-conscious, "retro" sense. They're really theme restaurants, with prices to match. The type of authentic beanery that I want to talk about is best exemplified by New Yorker Family Restaurant, at the corner of 27th Avenue and Northern.
The name is a non sequitur. There's little of the Big Apple about this place, which opened as Guggy's in the early 1960s. Country-western music plays over the loudspeaker, and the service, against New York tradition, is friendly, attentive and personable--so much so, indeed, that it puts the unctuousness of servers at many trendy places to shame.
Although a framed poster from the magazine hangs near the cash register, this is not Harold Ross' New Yorker. You wouldn't see John Cheever or Saul Bellow or John Updike in the booths, although, populist that she is, Pauline Kael might enjoy herself here.
So will most people--the dishes are good, except for those that are delicious, the portions are hearty and the prices are about as low as you can find outside of fast food. The steepest price I've ever paid for dinner here ($6.95) was for the souvlaki--well worth it for the lemon-tangy chunks of marinated pork tenderloin over rice. Other Greek options, including gyros, are on the menu daily at New Yorker; and while most of the pies are brought in, the excellent baklava is homemade. The peach cobbler and the mildly sweet but not cloying rice pudding and tapioca are also good choices for dessert.
Breakfast can be had all day. The Monterey Omelet, which balances chili peppers with Monterey Jack cheese, is one of the better fast-breakers, and the Greek Omelet, with fried tomato and feta cheese, nicely combines New Yorker's expertise at breakfast with its ethnic specialty. You can also order a single pancake, a peculiar but surprisingly agreeable side dish with a morning meal, and particularly good for kids.
Many of the best offerings, however, are only available once a week as specials. My own favorite of New Yorker's not-so-delicate delicacies is the goulash. Saturday's usual special, it's a mound of heavy beef, potato and carrot stew over egg noodles that could make Bela Lugosi himself nostalgic for dear old Hungary. Scrumptious though it is, it's not light. You may want to allow time in your schedule for a Saturday afternoon nap.
Almost as good as the goulash is Wednesday's pot roast--slices of usually tender beef in a startlingly spicy tomato-and-vegetable sauce. Both entrees, priced under five bucks, come with choice of potato and vegetable as well salad or soup. The vegetables, except for the tasty corn that often accompanies the pot roast, can safely be ignored--the carrots, cauliflower, and especially the broccoli, tend to be abused into limp tastelessness. But the main courses generally don't leave room for them anyway.
Bypass the unmemorable salad, as well, in favor of the fine soups, one of New Yorker's strong points. Bean soup is by far the best--a bowl of it can easily make a meal in itself--but the vegetable beef barley, the chicken noodle, and the porridge-like cream of potato are all worthwhile. So is the New England clam chowder, and there's also an occasional welcome visit by its cousin from Manhattan. Only the split-pea soup should be avoided.
There is one segment of the dining populace that isn't so likely to appreciate New Yorker's appeal--people who can't abide the smell of cigarette smoke. Ask for the nonsmoking section here and you may get a laugh. The ceiling tiles, once white, are now yellow with the nicotine of thousands of hard-living tobacco junkies. But I--a lifelong nonsmoker--am able to overlook New Yorker's hazy atmosphere, on a regular basis, for the sake of the great, cheap food and first-rate service.
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To the south and east from New Yorker, across from the Phoenix Art Museum on McDowell, is the SunnySide Cafe, another terrific specimen of authentic coffee shop. It doesn't quite have the same lively feel as New Yorker, but it has a quiet charm of its own, and it, too, has unbeatable prices and food that won't leave many unsatisfied.
My first choice at the SunnySide is one that's a snoozer at most other restaurants: the fish sandwich. It's a standard patty of batter-fried fillet, but it comes, with a blessedly restrained layer of tartar sauce, on a French roll that has far too much body and personality to have come out of a bag. The waitress confirmed that the chef bakes these French rolls, as well as the hamburger buns, himself. The crinkle-cut French fries that accompany this and the other sandwiches and burgers also rise far enough above the routine to warrant mention.
The chili burger, which, happily, consists of a good deal more thick, meaty chili than it does burger, is another winner, as is the French dip with au jus. Unlike the bread, the desserts are not homemade, but whoever the suppliers are, they know their jobs. The lemon meringue pie is splendid, and a layered cherry, strawberry and vanilla cream pie is almost as good. SunnySide also offers an extensive breakfast menu, and, like New Yorker, it's "served anytime."
Anytime, that is, that these joints are open, which brings me to the only major complaint I can voice about either of them--they don't have long enough hours. A true coffee shop, in the grand tradition, ought to be open around the clock, or at least very late. That neither New Yorker nor SunnySide is--the former closes at 9 p.m.; the latter closes at 8 p.m.--is not, of course, really either restaurant's fault; the business simply isn't there. It's the fault of this Valley's diurnal, roll-up-the-sidewalks nature that, in a community of two million and growing, we nighthawks can't get a good meal outside of a chain joint past 10 p.m. It's one more association that coffee shops have with the movies--they're the perfect place to go with a friend to chow down and dissect the late show you've just seen.