You hear some very interesting things when you keep schtum and listen in to the conversation between two NYC chefs. There we were, having morning coffee in a rather stylish eatery (and believe me, there are so many of these in New York we just haven’t got the space to list them); and there they were, sitting at a table beside us, chewing the fat (metaphorically speaking) and having a good old fashioned moan about the state of the more than average New York diner.
Being slightly off-duty, I didn’t think it a good or ethical idea to whip out my iPhone and click on the Voice Recorder app, but as soon as they started on what was clearly a favourite bête noir topic, I took out my trusty notebook and started surreptitiously jotting. A few finely tuned turns of phrase might be missing, but the following is a pretty reasonable summation of what one chef said to the other. The general conversation, by the way, revolved around what was the worst thing about New York diners. Ready? Here goes.
“F**king foodies that are allergic to cilantro – not because they’re actually allergic, but because they saw some rubbish on Sex and the City about telling the kitchen you’re allergic when you don’t like something so you can make a big deal about it if it wanders onto your plate by accident. I mean, really – why can’t they grow the f**k up?”
That’s the great thing about eating in New York – you never know who you’re going to sit down beside, which makes it a highly democratised city. You might think that any chef who says of vegetarians that they’re in denial of evolution is having an off day, but on the other hand (as our mutual chef friend said before he headed back to the kitchen) there are diners “who think they know everything, but the stark reality is most of them have the palates of children.”
So bearing that in mind (and, who knows, our chef friend could well be one hundred percent correct) we continue for the remainder of our short break (three very full and tiring days) trying to discover some of the best places for brunch. Unless you’re a native with an expenses account it’s unlikely you’ll have the time to cover all the bases so what follows is merely a few brief encounters.
Firstly, we just had to go to a classic diner, so on the first day we headed Downtown to Paul’s Da Burger Joint. Originally (and regally) named Paul’s Palace, we knew as soon as we walked into this place that it was the real thing: a linoleum countertop (easy to clean off grease and spilled sauces), checkered tablecloths, a grill that had clearly seen better and shinier days but which makes the meat sizzle like there’s no tomorrow.
The range of burgers and hot dogs (and everything else that accompanies them, from mushrooms and chillies to jalapenos to cheese) was extensive, so in order to emulate the kind of atmosphere that imbues such a place we each had a different one, along with a milkshake so thick you could have used it to cement bricks together – temporarily, at least.
The extra touch here, however, was not so much the food (which was vastly superior diner fare to anywhere else we had eaten in Ireland – and yes, we are talking about various franchise operations) but the wait staff. Straight talking, and plucked from a sequence of 1950’s b-movies, they were brusque, funny and occasionally so rude we had to check we hadn’t done or said anything to offend them.
They were either putting it on or else they just don’t like being here (we reckon it’s the former, by the way), but whatever it was it worked and added to the ‘burger-at-a-diner-in-New-York-City’ vibe like a cinematic dream.
Sometimes, the budget doesn’t have to be bent or broken, which is why a visit to the simply titled Egg is a must. Located in the ever happening Williamsburg, as its tell-tale name implies Egg is an all-day breakfast/brunch spot.
It is, however, a bit more than that, as it steers clear of the obvious by reflecting Southern tastes. Make room, then, for the likes of Carolina kale (organic kale and tomatoes simmering in a lightly spiced broth, with a side of grilled cornbread) and county ham biscuit (grits, needless to say, jig jam, and Grafton cheddar). Wash this down with French press single origin coffees from Tanzania, and you’ll be fine until night time.
After night comes day – the final day, and did I say something about being spoiled? No, but we decided to treat ourselves, anyway, to a secluded spot, albeit one within a fairly swish shopping mall – the Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle. This swanky emporium to consumerism is a retail, entertainment and restaurant complex.
Alongside the likes of Hugo Boss and Borders, there are the restaurants Per Se (according to Harpers Magazine writer Tanya Gold, the food at Per Se is “generally, so overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room…”; Zagat, however, includes the restaurant in its Top 50 in NYC list), Masa, a high-end sushi restaurant (“the chef’s selection of sushi is unrivalled; the rice is firm and temperate, garnishes are subtle, and the quality of fish is supreme…” – Michelin), and Porter House Bar & Grill.
When it comes to blending great brunch and affordable prices, Porter House B&G is the best of both worlds. It is also quite the most civilised place for brunch I’ve ever experienced, as it effortlessly manages to blend gentleman’s club gravitas with a relaxed, what’s-your-hurry? demeanour. It’s also the very first time I’ve seen a Salmon Burger on the menu (which I ordered and which was absolutely amazing – crisp, succulent fish garnished with pickled ginger and wasabi mayo).
To end, perhaps we should go back to the start, and to the chefs’ tête-à-tête. What do they really hate, they asked each other. This is where I started to jot down notes again, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t hear the rustling of pages and the scratching of pen on paper. Without missing a heartbeat one said, “the chefs who think they’re rock stars when really they’re dreamers who look like prison cooks.” The other: “I hate it when people walk in ten minutes before closing.”
Now you know. And here’s a tip that costs nothing – be careful what you say to your friend the next time you sit down for a coffee. There might be a guy at the next table taking sneaky notes.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.