Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Lexington Luncheonette

Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was one of my very favorite books as a child. I related to Harriet, a highly curious and intelligent 11-year-old who wanted to remember everything, and she scribbled incessantly in her notebook as she recorded her thoughts and observations on people. This book, set mainly on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was also my introduction to New York. I was a California kid and thought it very strange that nobody in this book had a car but instead walked everywhere when they weren’t riding the bus or subway. I also thought it odd that Harriet’s street was simply called “East 87th Street”, and the words “brownstone apartment” and “garden duplex” meant nothing to me at first. But as I reread the story of Harriet the Spy’s adventures many times over the next few years, I gradually began to form an idea in my mind of the New York that Harriet lived in, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

I was particularly enchanted by the idea of a luncheonette or drugstore with a soda fountain counter, places that Harriet frequented. During her spy route each day, she would stop at her favorite luncheonette for a chocolate egg cream. She had a daily game she played, sipping her egg cream at the counter while listening to customers at the tables behind her, making notes and trying to imagine what they looked like merely from the sounds of their voices and conversations. As someone who earnestly loved people-watching from an early age, I could definitely relate as I had my own variations on this game. And though I had no idea what a chocolate egg cream was, I knew I wanted one. I figured it must be delicious, if only for the fact that it had chocolate in it and was served at a place that also offered shakes and malted.

Coincidentally enough, I actually lived on East 87th Street during my first year in New York, just like Harriet. By that time in my life, I had more than a decade’s worth of journals filled with my own scrawling, an accumulation of notebooks that certainly would have rivaled Harriet’s collection. But unlike Harriet’s New York of the early 1960s with its charming luncheonettes, my New York of the mid-1990s was overrun with charm-free corporate coffee chains. Competing with the coffee franchises for space on every corner were the big drugstore conglomerates, impersonal and sterile storefronts with garish fluorescent lighting and nary a soda fountain counter in sight. I was yet to find the chocolate egg cream in the luncheonette of my dreams.

I’ve eaten at many diners over the past 13 years, but I can hardly describe my utter delight a few months ago when I stumbled upon the Lexington Luncheonette, a charming little mom-and-pop diner located on Lexington and 83rd Street. Also known as the Lexington Candy Shop, the décor in this place has not changed for decades, a fact I somehow find comforting. I felt I had struck gold when I saw the man behind the counter pouring a coke, actually hand-mixing coca-cola syrup with real soda water. As I sat at the counter and took one sip, tears practically sprang to my eyes, for it tasted like the coca-cola of my childhood!

As I am often in that neighborhood for rehearsals, I’ve had many opportunities to work my way through the menu over these past few months. All of the food is prepared with great care and served with pride, and the Lexington Luncheonette has never let me down. The indignity of an early morning rehearsal on the East Side is definitely cushioned by the enjoyment of a breakfast eaten here. Juices are all freshly squeezed, and the coffee is some of the best diner coffee I’ve drunk. Scrambled eggs are softly scrambled without my even having to ask, prepared just the way I like them. The French toast is a must in the mornings, for it is fluffy inside while browned to a golden crisp on the outside, with just a dash of cinnamon on top. It is no surprise that this French toast has won citywide acclaim.

Soups are made from scratch on the premises, and I had one of the singularly most satisfying bowls of split pea soup of my life on a recent lunch visit. After trying many of the scrumptious sandwiches and juicy burgers on the menu, I’m now usually torn between ordering a grilled cheese or the B.L.T. The grilled cheese is a marvel, the ideal ratio of sharp cheddar to hearty multigrain bread and grilled to perfection, something that can only be improved upon by the addition of crisp bacon, if you’re feeling really decadent. (I often am.) But it is hard not to order the B.L.T., as this place really has a way with bacon. It is cooked perfectly crisp each time, providing just enough traction so that juicy slices of ripe tomato and hand-leafed lettuce don’t slip out between the bread, and a judicious slather of mayonnaise ties the flavors all together. My mouth is watering just at the mere thought of it.

The shakes and malteds are thick and rich, made with Bassett’s premium ice cream. (Yes, this is the Bassett’s Ice Cream of Philadelphia fame!) I love being served the metal container of the extra shake that didn’t make it into the tall glass, prolonging my milkshake-sipping pleasure, and nothing makes me feel like a little kid more than slurping down a frosty tall chocolate malted with a bendy straw. And the egg creams—made in the traditional way with neither eggs nor cream, but with chocolate syrup, cold milk and seltzer and whisked to an animated froth—are a classic New York thirst-quencher.

Whenever I sit alone at the counter, I take a trip down the memory lane of my imagination. I always feel that I’m having my own personal Harriet the Spy moment when I treat myself to a chocolate egg cream while checking out all the local color around me, for I can easily imagine Harriet sitting at the counter in this place. Although I don’t furiously take notes on my fellow customers as I sip my drink, a la Harriet, I do feel like I’ve stepped back in time and am fulfilling some sort of childhood fantasy of being on my own in New York. The Lexington Luncheonette is usually filled with many colorful characters from the neighborhood, and I get the sense that these are long-time customers who have been frequenting this establishment for ages. Then again, there was the time that Paul McCartney was sitting opposite me in a booth, but that is another story…

Lexington Luncheonette
1226 Lexington Avenue (between 82nd and 83rd Streets)

No comments: