Simple, Friendly and Good: Two Southwest Staples that Keep it Real
Our Kitchen and The Malt Shop show that good eats and a friendly, familial atmosphere mean customer loyalty.
I'm as guilty as the next food enthusiast of hyping the latest restaurant, trend or even celebrity chef. If it says farm-to-table, sustainable, local or organic, I hop on the bandwagon along with the rest of the foodie hoi polloi, and often get disappointed. It led me to thinking about how these concepts came about partially because we started to get disconnected from the simple joys of food and the community it creates.
Our neighborhood is home to many restaurants that are doing great new things. But what about the old ones that don't follow the trends? Are they still worth our notice? Is there room in this landscape of savory foams, star chefs and post-post-modern cuisine for eateries that are unironically making diner classics and still filling their tables?
Those questions led me smack into Our Kitchen, a place that's been doing what it does since 1941. Sure, Dan Ziegler has only owned the place for 19 years (he bought it from his grandfather), so he hasn't caught up to his predecessor yet, but he's not planning on going anywhere.
Ziegler is the owner and chef de short order cuisine of this West 36th Street instituition. It's got a no-frills atmosphere, where the customer sits at the counter (save for a few window seats), a few feet from their plate-sized pancakes, huge hashbrowns, eggs, grits, oatmeal, sausage and bacon as they are being prepared on the grill. (The place also makes lunch items, like sandwiches, burgers and soup, but most folks are in it for the morning vittles.)
Mid-morning on a Wednesday, the counter and few extra window seats are about half full with a handful of twenty-somethings, a man reading a newspaper and a woman getting her weekly egg and toast. "I come here regularly, after my class, which is down the street," she told me, perfectly content to eat alone at Our Kitchen.
That's probably because the simple fare is done right and more than a dollop of conversation and good cheer is thrown in by Ziegler. He chatted with the two of us as he made everyone's food to order. "My daughter, who is six," he says, pulling a pic of her from above the stove, "brought a friend here for breakfast after a sleepover." Apparently, she told her pal that she owned the place, because her dad owns it, so by extension...
As he told the story, he scooped a huge portion of freshly peeled potatoes on the grill for hashbrowns and flattened some sausage patties. I had two eggs over easy with toast and hashbrowns and listened to the patter from the length of the counter. In addition to the greasy spoon basics done right — fluffy, huge pancakes, perfectly cooked eggs and the righteous potatoes (crispy outside, begging for catsup and tender real tater inside) — the entire experience made my day better. Good food for an honest price, pleasant conversation and no pretense.
After a bit of a nap, I ambled down to The Malt Shop on West 50th Street, to visit another straight up eatery, that specializes in the eponymous ice cream treat as well as shakes and sundaes. Open since 1973, it's catered to families since its inception and was a lucky survivor of the terrible fire that took out Heidi's and the Blackbird Cafe (both safely reopened elsewhere).
On a quiet weekday afternoon, I approached, as construction buzzed next door. The front room had t-shirts for sale and a chalkboard showed the over 20 available malt flavors. I got seated quickly by a friendly server and heard the sounds of children in a booth nearby.
"Who invented the malt?" asked one, and his father (I assume) chuckled as they cheerfully ate ice cream together. I felt inspired by the amiable environment and perused the menu. While owner Richard Henke and the culinary team (as listed on the Facebook page) have made a few concessions to dining changes, like a selection of vegetarian items, most of the menu is populated with dishes I recognize from the local ice cream parlor/grill that I visited as a child, including burgers, sandwiches, soups, nachos and mozarella sticks.
I ordered cheese fries and a vanilla tulip sundae with hot fudge sauce and salted pecans and took in the homey decor. The waitress explained that several of the pictures were of the owner's relatives and conscientiously made sure I actually wanted both my "entrees" at the same time. She smiled and warned me that the ice cream melts quickly.
Fries and a sundae require no fancy training to construct, and yet making them in all their plain glory is no small achievement. These have no artisanal fromage or fleur de sel, and thank goodness for that. But upon seeing the pictures, I think you'll agree that my meal was done to perfection. Cheese, melted perfectly over crispy fries and chewy, thick, hot fudge sauce with whipped cream, a cherry and salty nuts over ice cream make for an amazing duo especially at a $8.38 price tag.
I've read that The Malt Shop is a must for some because of nostalgia — they had memorable dates there during high school — and others are in it for the ice cream, but I believe all come for the friendly treatment and uncomplicated food. I am no exception.
Some days call for innovative techniques, heirloom ingredients and a soupçon of exoticism, which the Southwest delivers on many fronts (see Piccolo, Corner Table, Cafe Maude, In Season, I could go on). But on the days you need a little psychic comfort, old-style joints like Our Kitchen and The Malt Shop can turn that frown upside down. Their combined eighty-ish years of experience prove that they still have something to teach their newer colleagues. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with being simple, friendly and good.