Last Friday, I was on vacation in New York. A good premise, but if you look a little closer, the day's beginning was not so auspicious. My Brooklyn hosts had to work all day. We would reunite for a big birthday dinner for one of them that evening, but for the day, I was on my own. Which of itself is not a horrible place to be: I love walking in cities, and while I'm happy to have a companion, walking solo is fine with me. I like the chance to explore on my own and go exactly where I want to go, lingering here, passing quickly through there. However, it was raining. I am like the Wicked Witch of the West: rain melts me. Probably due to my sunny California upbringing, me and rain don't get along too well: even with an umbrella, I bumble through reluctantly. It affects my mood and my mobility -- both negatively, of course. And on a day devoted to walking, rain is just a kick in the pants. So it was a dreary start.
But there were some glimmers. After a stop in midtown to check out the MOMA gift store and make the requisite pilgrimage to beloved Central Park (which of course, was wet and empty and depressing), I headed into the West Village to chase a suggestion my friend Jodi had made on this very blog. In spite of my growing sogginess, I was loving walking through the West Village. Especially through the grey semi-darkness, every adorable storefront seemed like a bright warm hideaway I had discovered for the first time. Bookstores, boutiques, wine bars, all posh and well-appointed, made this stretch very inviting indeed. Two shops stuck out as places I had to visit after lunch: Jack's Stir-brewed Coffee, and Bonnie Slotnick's Cookbooks, a cozy shop packed with vintage cookbooks (what a find!). Eyes on the prize though -- keep on trudging Tannaz.
I was finally standing in front of Westville: a tiny bright white storefront with a big friendly awning and country accents. A peek inside showed me diners packed into the wood tables, bumping elbows with the people next to them. In a word, cozy. After a mostly dry wait under said awning, I finally got a table. I forewent a glass of wine, which always seems typical to me of the solo diner treating herself, in favor of hot tea, and started checking out the menu. It was interesting: hamburgers and hot dogs, but also whole trout, grilled chicken, and a veal special. But I was here for the vegetables.
Ah, the vegetables. The vegetables! A chalkboard on the wall listed today's twenty or so choices, and it was difficult to choose: beets with walnuts, sauteed cherry tomatoes, 2 kinds of mashed potatoes (pesto and roasted garlic!), braised artichoke hearts, steamed green beans, grilled corn on the cob with cotija and lime, and on and on. This chalkboard was great vegetable PR: my mouth was watering over every listing. I could order 1 a la carte, or 4 for twelve dollars. Of course I went for the four; this was vegetables as entree, and there were at least ten I was eager to try. With the help of the friendly waitress, I narrowed down my selections: grilled asparagus with lemon and parmesan, Asian-style bok choy, sauteed kale with shallots (and, I suspect, a splash of white wine), and the grand winner, roasted fennel with parmesan. It was softly browned, slightly sweet, rich and buttery, with the nutty bite of anise. Wow. I'm so glad I took Jodi's recommendation -- this meal was healthful, delicious, and right up my alley.
As I was eating, a very interesting couple entered the room. Westville is so small that every new body makes an impact, but these two would have stood out in a huge cafeteria. The wife: stick-straight black Cher-hair, false eyelashes, perfect tan. On each finger of each hand, she wore a silver ring with a stone larger than a quarter. About 8 inches of each arm, from wrist going toward elbow, were covered with silver bracelets -- jangling like chainmail with her every move. Huge pink shopping bag. The husband: his hair was a serious oil slick, and he too sported the perfect tan, as well as the perfectly groomed mustache. Black button-down unbuttoned to expose a silver necklace; a silver bracelet on his wrist barely covered a tattoo.
This couple took over the dining room the minute they walked in. Chatting up the waitress (they were serious regulars), swooning at every baby that walked into the place, asking me about my food before they even sat down. I managed to learn much of their life story over the course of sitting there. They have 2 college-aged daughters, they told the harried woman whose newborn's stroller he kindly squeezed in next to his seat. One of them drives a Benz, and mom made sure, on her cellphone, that she didn't forget to get the registration taken care of. He never went to college, but they're successful anyway (clearly), and in addition to their home in New York, they have a house in Miami. I didn't learn the nature of his financial success, but in the back of my mind I question whether everything's on the up-and-up. Regardless, these were a couple of the warmest, most good-natured people I've encountered.
I mentioned I was here from Los Angeles and it set him off. "Too many weirdos there!" "Give me a New York crazy over a Los Angeles crazy anyday!" I was totally in accordance with him that he would stick out like a sore thumb in LA. As he put it, "I come to LA, and I'm my cousin Vinnie!" He hit the nail on the head.
I paid my bill and said my goodbyes -- I really would have enjoyed staying and chatting with these characters. I hadn't had high hopes for the day, but it really did end up quite memorable: an inspiring meal, a serendipitous encounter with a truly New York couple, and a 1977 copy of The Anthropologist's Cookbook to take home as a souvenir. And this was just daytime -- I hadn't even gotten to the birthday festivities and the 2 am pommes frites that capped them!
Westville is at 210 W. 10th St., at Bleecker.
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks is at 163 W. 10th St.
Jack's Stir Brewed Coffee is at 138 W. 10th St.
Pommes Frites is at 123 2nd Ave., between 7th St. and St. Marks Place.