Bye-Bye Benny’s

Benny’s Burritos is closing tomorrow at the age of 26.

My heart sank when I heard this news. For someone who’d only had a margarita here once, late at night with a few friends, my sadness may seem exaggerated. But only recently I’d passed the Avenue A and East 6th Street corner where Benny’s stands, thinking, “That was a great place – I should go back sometime.” The problem is, Benny’s isn’t so much a place you go to but a place you stumble upon. And I never stumbled there again.

I’d only been to Benny’s once but knew it had history. The East Village gem opened its doors to the late ‘80s downtown scene where artist-types roamed the streets looking for a post-club bite. With its bright-colored walls and 1960s artifacts, Benny’s was always a bit kitschy, but that was part of its appeal. As New York Magazine wrote in 1990, “Benny’s Burritos is a rare find: a scene with no attitude.”

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Photo by circlealine

These days Chipotles pop up all over Manhattan, but just 25 years ago the burrito wasn’t a fast food go-to. In fact, its rise has been fairly recent. Burritos existed at chili parlors, the burrito joint’s predecessor, but were slender, manageable tubes of rice and meat rather than the monstrous creations we know today. Benny’s was a big-burrito pioneer back when “Mexicali food was as rare as an East Village stockbroker,” according to New York Magazine.

Owner Mark Merker told EV Grieve “the world has changed” since he first opened Benny’s in 1988. Business has been good, but costs keep rising and competition from franchises like Chipotle doesn’t help.

OK, it’s not quite true that Benny’s is closing – it’s downsizing. Benny’s is shuttering its restaurant space and keeping just the takeout counter. (Its sister restaurant, Harry’s Burritos on the Upper West Side, will also close.) But for me this may as well mean the end of Benny’s – it was all about atmosphere. With a proliferation of other food options in the East Village, from fancy fries to authentic tacos, I don’t envision stopping at the takeout counter for a just-OK burrito.

orderbennysburritos.com
orderbennysburritos.com

The Twitterverse agrees, one customer lamenting, “it was never about the burritos (average) but the great sidewalk scene.” Reading other reactions on Twitter, it’s clear the burrito joint played a role in many New Yorkers’ formative years:

Benny’s will always be the taste of being 19, broke and spending my last $20 on a margarita and burrito

Mass foreclosure on my early NYC memories continues. Ate many a meal at Benny’s in late ’80s/’90s

Heard last night that Benny’s Burritos on Ave A is closing. End of an era in NYC

This one hurts.

I can’t claim the same disappointment as customers who frequented Benny’s during “Rent” years. But I’m sad for what it represents – continued rent hikes forcing a generation of beloved restaurants to downsize or shut down completely. Casual gathering spots like Benny’s, where the people and not the food take center stage, make New York what it is.

Benny’s had character and building character takes time.

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The reality is that the city changes and we want it all – the new and the old. It’s sort of a paradox, isn’t it? New Yorkers are totally obsessed with newness – clothes, food, music – but gripe when change occurs to our New York. We feel protective over our visions of the city and the places within them that feel like home. For many people that cheap Mexican spot on Avenue A was one of those places, so despite more than 20,000 other New York restaurants and countless other burrito joints, it’s impossible not to feel loss.

Bye-bye, Benny’s. Your margaritas were strong and your guac not particularly memorable. But you’ll live on in my idea of New York, the one I’ll hold dear when I’m older and reminiscing about the city “back then.” I’ll remember the tequila bliss and late night chatter, the contagious laughter of a few good friends sitting on worn vinyl bar stools. I’ll remember it was you, Benny’s, even though it could have been anywhere. 

The Rookie At Bat

I remember first hearing the term “rookie” when I was five years old at a Yankees game with my dad.

Derek Jeter was at bat and the late Bob Sheppard’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. For the most part I didn’t pay much attention to what Sheppard was saying, but when I heard him say “rookie” I perked up.

“Dad, what does ‘rookie’ mean?”

“It means it’s his first year playing baseball here. He’s the new guy on the team.”

A future Hall of Famer with just days left in his career, the Yankees captain is a long way from being the new guy on the team. But to this day whenever I hear the word “rookie” I think of the 21-year-old Derek Jeter. Even though 19 years and five World Series championships later, he’s become a legend. Even though Jeter’s entire career passed during the time I grew up, went to college and got my first job, he’s still immortalized as that guy at bat the summer of ’95.

It’s a good reminder that even the best of the best were rookies, once.

Watch Jeter’s touching tribute to fans in this Gatorade ad.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

Yes, I finally made my first trip to the legendary Katz’s Deli.

My grandpa and I had been talking about doing this for awhile. Back in the day, his father owned a dairy restaurant around the corner (on Stanton and Ludlow) called Max’s Luncheonette. Grandpa would tell us stories about working at the store–it’s where he met my grandmother, who worked nearby and was a lunchtime regular.

I thought it would be fun for grandpa to meet me and my cousins in the city, head down to the Lower East Side, have a nice fat sandwich from 125-year-old Katz’s and walk around the old neighborhood.

ludlow Well in the months since the idea first came about, word spread throughout the family and by last week 13 of us were on board. Not wanting to worry about parking in the congested Lower East Side, my grandpa ordered a van that began its journey in Central Jersey, picked up my family in North Jersey, made a pit stop at my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and finally dropped us off on Ludlow Street.

Yes, we took a limo to Katz’s, and it was fabulous.

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The scene inside was nothing short of madness. Staff at the door handed each one of us blue tickets and made sure we knew to hold on to them–there’s a $50 fee if you lose it. (Your ticket is your check. Each time you order a dish your ticket is marked and you pay on your way out.)

From there we tried to figure out seating. Katz’s doesn’t take reservations so we immediately put in our name for table service, but were told they couldn’t seat our large party for at least another hour. So a few of us went to the back to stalk tables as parties finished up, eventually pouncing on a long table near the soda station.

From there more confusion ensued. Which line is for sandwiches and which is for drinks? Where can we get extra napkins? Are we even in a line right now or just stuck in a giant mass of tourists?

My brother and I split off from the group and ordered a pastrami sandwich to split, fries and pickles. It was amazing watching our server expertly slice the meat, spread on mustard and slice the sandwich in a matter of seconds. Katz’s is one of the few delis left in New York where they still carve their meat by hand, and they move FAST. According to a Daily News article, Katz’s serves 15,000 pounds of pastrami, 8,000 pounds of corned beef and 4,000 hot dogs each week.

That’s a whole lot of meat.

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But while the deli is known for its heaping sandwiches, its other “noshes” are top notch too. Egg and tuna salads. Potato knishes. Matzo ball soup. Split pea soup. Egg creams. Every Jewish deli staple you can think of can be found at Katz’s, each serving large enough to feed a family.

Everything I tried was amazing. Even my grandpa, who hadn’t eaten red meat in years, tasted a little slice of pastrami (although it took some coaxing, as the picture displays).

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As we finished up my grandpa gathered all the tickets, stuffed them in his shirt pocket, walked up to the front of the restaurant and treated us to lunch. He’s the best.

The rest of us followed and noticed this sign as we headed out the door. Sadly, the girl sitting in the “When Harry Met Sally” chair right below wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about her food as Sally was.

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Despite the crowds and initial confusion, we all had a wonderful afternoon at Katz’s Deli. I loved just being together, something we don’t do as often as we should. I hear my grandpa is already brainstorming our next New York City outing.

I’ve passed Katz’s many times during nights out at the bars on Stanton or trips downtown for brunch, and it’s definitely been on my bucket list to try. But sharing the experience with my grandpa, for me, was a peek into history. I tried to imagine the Lower East Side as Grandpa described it, crowded with shoppers and street peddlers, much noisier and grittier than it is today.

I imagine that as noon came around, many of those shoppers momentarily pondered whether to stop in for a midday sandwich at Katz’s or go just around the corner for eggs and toast at Max’s Luncheonette.

Read more about the history of Katz’s here.

An Unlikely Moment At Trader Joe’s

Anyone who’s shopped at a New York City Trader Joe’s knows the checkout line can be a nightmare.

Such was the case last Sunday around 2 p.m. I had gathered up my usual TJ items and took my place among the long line of groaning New Yorkers waiting to get on with their days.

A cheery sign assured us: “Thinking twice about waiting in this line? Well with 29 registers…You’ll be in front of them in no time!” But “no time” seems like hours when a sunny Sunday waits just beyond the doors.

Then I saw a little old lady move up through the line. She was led by a Trader Joe’s associate who looked like a college student—there had to be 70 years between them but they talked like good friends.

“April 21st, 1922 I was born,” the lady said proudly as she walked past me, her voice much stronger than her body.

This statement caught the attention of some other people on the line. What’s happening? Where is she going? Curiosity got the better of us and we craned our heads to see what was going on. We watched as the associate led the lady around the snaking line and brought her right up to the first open cash register.

Then something happened that I rarely see on checkout lines: people smiled. Not just to their friends and spouses but to strangers, too. We admired the good deed and the lady’s vitality, sharing a moment before returning to the pressing needs of our iPhones.

I wondered why the old lady shops here as opposed to the less crowded stores of the Upper West Side. She appeared to only be buying for one, after all. But then I imagined her, in her younger days, rushing around a market or going from butcher shop to dairy shop in a crowded neighborhood of Brooklyn. I could see her haggling, yelling her order, pushing through crowds.

Maybe, to her, the chaos is home.

Ninety-two and still kickin’. I wanted to know this woman’s story, to find out her name, but alas she was on her way up the escalators with a bag in each hand as I stood there surrounded by produce, stuck in time.

Waldorf A-story-a?

That’s right, the place where “stories begin” is apparently The Waldorf.

The phrase I mentioned in my previous post is the tagline of the hotel’s current global advertising campaign, “The Stories Begin Here.” The campaign involves a creative collaboration between British author Simon Van Booy, fashion photographer Bruno Dayanand, and actress Olga Kyrlyenko.

The Waldorf commissioned Van Booy to compose a short story that would inspire a photo shoot. In the story Krylyenko plays a character named Alexandra, a well-traveled couturier who experiences the various amenities Waldorf hotels have to offer (while engaging with attractive and distinguished men along the way, of course). The tale is told through photography, written vignettes, videos and soundbites.

H. Stuart Foster, vice president of marketing at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, said the multimedia campaign “brings to life” the unforgettable experiences” guests can have at any of the 24 worldwide locations.

“We have brought together a writer, an actor and a photographer – three creative minds – to develop an integrated multi-platform campaign that embodies the Waldorf Astoria guest experience,” he said when the campaign launched in November.

When I initially saw the phrase “The Stories Begin Here” on a building in Midtown East, I thought I was looking at a nice bookshop, the side of a museum cafe or possibly the lobby of a publishing company. But The Waldorf?

Doesn’t quite fit.

I love photography and fiction, but this marketing campaign seems stretched. Yes, many stories happen within the rooms and restaurants of a high-end hotel. But stories happen wherever there are people. And are Waldorf guests really looking to create stories, necessarily, or just looking for the luxurious experience that a five-star hotel offers?

Writer Larry Post details his issues with the campaign in a MediaPost column:

I suspect that few luxe-hotel regulars, excepting the ones who turn over their imaginations to the more extreme options on the hotel pay-per-view menu, have daydreamed about an experience of this sort, and that such experiences don’t rank especially high on their hospitality bucket lists. As a result, “The Stories Begin Here” plays out as self-idealizing farce, an attempt to sell a fantasy so magnificently specific as to verge on the ludicrous.

Post is right; they are most definitely selling a fantasy. A link on the website even prompts guests to “BOOK A STORY” instead of “BOOK A ROOM.”

Seems to me a little pretentious. But then again, I’m not booking rooms at The Waldorf.

–Read all the stories here.

stories

Where Stories Begin

A bold statement for New York, right?

I love stories, so even seeing the word written out is enough to catch my eye.  I noticed this phrase on my walk home from an event tonight, written in simple white text on the glass of a well-known New York City building. Can you guess which one?

A low-key Sunday birthday

I love Sunday mornings.

But they’re even better when it’s your birthday.

irvingfarm

On Sunday I woke up on the early side and spent the morning doing one of my favorite things: relaxing at a coffee shop. I’d been meaning for awhile to check out Irving Farm Coffee Roasters in the Upper West Side, a spot my roommate had recommended but I’d been reluctant to go to since they don’t have wifi.

But today was my birthday. Who needs work? Who needs wifi?

I took the 1 train uptown and the shop was just around the corner from the 79th Street stop. I could tell immediately it was popular from the line out the door. Irving Farm bustled with Upper West Siders getting their pre and post workout coffee fixes, young families gathering for quick breakfasts before church, and older couples quietly reading The New York Times.

I waited on line for nearly 15 minutes just to order coffee, something I typically wouldn’t have patience for–but time is one of the great luxuries of Sunday mornings.

And I have to say, the quality of the coffee and the ample seating space made it worth it.

They also serve all their cold drinks in mason jars (don’t ask me why but that’s a game changer).

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After getting my dark roast I grabbed a seat in the back corner, opened my notebook, and did some writing. Irving Farm’s lively atmosphere made it a great place to people watch. I’ll definitely be going back!

Then, because I love coffee so much, I met my friend Grace for more coffee at Aroma a few blocks away. Aroma is an Israeli coffee chain that I discovered a few summers back while working at the Garden State Mall. One of Aroma’s first U.S. stores had opened up next to the Lord & Taylor where I was a sales associate, so each day I got my midday caffeine fix at the trendy new spot.

But having just returned from a trip to Israel where Aroma is as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in the U.S., Aroma now has a nostalgia factor for me. I immediately noticed Israeli accents when I walked in, and I overheard two women near us discussing the conflict in Gaza. Sitting on the covered rooftop, it was easy to believe I was back in Israel.

aroma

Grace and I spent about an hour at Aroma, chatting about our vacations and summer plans. After that I walked back to my apartment from the Upper West, then went for a run.

In the evening, my family came into the city and we ate at Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center. Margaritas, fresh-made guacamole, enchiladas, and family.

Perfect way to end the day.

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Given my ultra-caffeinated day, my sister’s birthday card to me was all too appropriate.

Why iced coffee costs more

I read an interesting article today on Grubstreet about why iced coffee costs more.

Broken down into a few major points:

1. Unlike bodegas and diners which just add ice to their hot java, better coffee shops use a cold-brew method to make iced coffee. But cold-brewing (steeping grounds in room temperature filtered water for 12-24 hours) requires more coffee. In the end, a cold brew uses 62 cents worth of coffee and a hot cup uses about 35 cents.

2. THE  CUPS. Those clear plastic cups that sweat on a hot summer day? They’re more expensive than the paper ones. Paper cups cost about six cents while the plastic ones can go up to 12 cents a pop.

3. Straws. Customers might think nothing of grabbing one of the hundreds of straws sitting in a dispenser, each of which cost one to two cents. But that adds up when you’re selling a lot of coffee.

4. Napkins. The aforementioned sweaty plastic cup means customers will grab a handful of napkins on their way out to grip the cold drink. And usually more than they really need (I’m guilty of that.)

5. Renting an ice machine costs $12/day. But if the ice machine breaks? Ice bags en masse from Gristedes, and they’re not cheap!

The good news for coffee shop owners? Hot coffee goes bad in about 30 minutes, but the cold-brewed concentrate can last up to a week. More bang for your buck…just don’t tell the customers.

So there you have it. All variables considered, iced coffee costs about 80 cents more than a comparable cup of hot.

It’s a summer survival tool that’s well worth the markup.

Say Yes To Pizza

SOURCE: nevinmartell.com
SOURCE: nevinmartell.com

What does it take to have a good conversation with strangers in New York?

Apparently it’s not necessarily going to bars but getting the late-night pizza afterward.

After spending last Saturday night at a bar in Union Square, I sauntered outside with a couple of friends, John and Katherine. It was that critical point in the night when a decision must be made–get food or go home? As we walked down 14th Street we each silently weighed our options: Is there anything at all in the fridge? What about that gyro place next to my apartment…does it close at 3 or 4? Am I really that hungry or can I wait till tomorrow’s bacon egg and cheese?

We were all heading in our separate directions–me to Hell’s Kitchen, Katherine to the Upper East Side and John back to Hoboken, so a decision needed to be made soon.

John was the first to speak. “OK, it’s late, I’m going home.” Before I knew it he’d disappeared into the subway station.

Taking his cue, I said a quick good-bye to Katherine and continued west. But then my stomach starting growling, and the thought of actually having to prepare food when I got home settled in.

“WAIT!” I said to Katherine. “I’ll get pizza with you.”

She smiled, as if she’d known I would change my mind. “OK let’s do this,” she said.

And so we walked back the way we had come, returning to the only crowded pizza place on the block.

SOURCE: thedailymeal.com
SOURCE: thedailymeal.com

We each ordered a slice–Katherine basic pepperoni and me this onion/mushroom/garlic/pepperoni concoction that looked incredibly appetizing at that late hour (and really was delicious).

We dumped some parmesan and oregano on our slices, grabbed two seats at table, and began eating our pizza in total silence, the way two hungry and tired friends can do without feeling awkward.

But we weren’t silent for long, because two guys asked if they could grab the empty seats across the table.

“Sure!” we said. One of them in particular was pretty attractive.

After introducing themselves, they started asking us some questions that seemed a little too formulated for random conversation.

“So,” one asked. “Do you guys use apps to determine what bar you go to on the weekends?”

“Um, I use Yelp to find restaurants and sometimes bars,” I said.

“I use Yelp and Foursquare,” Katherine said.

“What if you could find out LIVE information about a place, before you even get there,” the guy said. “What if you could know how many people are in a bar, what the atmosphere is like, what the ratio of male to female is, before you even walk in the door.”

“Ummm…” We looked at each other. We both work in the media world and could sense what he was on to.

“Are you creating an app?” Katherine asked. ” I work in consumer insights, this is what I do for my job.”

“You caught us,” he responded.

SOURCE: http://lostatseanyc.blogspot.com
SOURCE: http://lostatseanyc.blogspot.com

They weren’t just two guys asking to sit down and chat with two girls. They were two guys pitching their product to girls in their target demographic, and getting to know us at the same time–which made the experience even cooler.

And so we discussed the merits of knowing too much versus too little information about a place. We talked about the limitations of such an app–if it didn’t immediately have hundreds or thousands of users, like Yelp and Foursquare do, how could we trust the opinions of a user base that may not be like us?

Katherine and I agreed that the only real way to determine atmosphere is to be there in person. Or maybe we’re just old.

I don’t know what time it was when I called quits on the conversation. Maybe 3:20, maybe 3:30, maybe 3:45. But it was late, and I had the sense these guys could go on for hours, or as long as we let them. (They were sober, and possibly caffeinated.)

I’m not an app creator and I need my sleep, but it was an awesome, intelligent conversation and an interesting experience. The kind of thing that I wanted, and expected, to happen when I moved to New York.

Lesson learned: ALWAYS say yes to pizza.

A Weekend in West Virginia

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Me in downtown Morgantown

When I told friends and coworkers in New York I was spending Memorial Day weekend in West Virginia, the response was invariably, “WHY?”

Most city folk spend their long weekends in the Hamptons, or the Jersey Shore, or various other locales about an hour or two outside of Midtown, so West Virginia is certainly out of the ordinary. But I had good reason to head out to the Mountain State. One of my best friends, Jolene, lives there and I wanted to see her and get a sense of her new life.

I also wanted to go far, far from the city, somewhere totally new.

It wouldn’t be my first time to West Virginia. Sophomore year of college I spent a week in the southern part of the state, picking up litter in the Appalachian Mountains as part of a university service trip. Then, my senior year, a few friends and I drove through on our way to Hilton Head Island for spring break (yes, we blasted “Country Roads”).

From my 2009 trip to Appalachia
Taken on my 2009 trip to Appalachia

But I’d never been up north to Morgantown.

My other good friend, Laura, and I left from New Jersey early Friday morning, grabbing Dunkin’ Donuts coffees on our way. I was nervous about the drive, since I rarely get behind the wheel any more now that I live in the city. But my nerves calmed pretty quickly–I forgot how exhilarating highway driving can be.

The land rose and fell beneath us we moved into Pennsylvania and then West Virginia. We passed cows, horses and farmland. Over and over we marveled at how expansive and breathtakingly beautiful our country is, things one easily forgets when living in such a densely populated area.

The ride was pretty smooth, and aside from two Jersey girls trying to pump gas at a small country store (Billie’s was the name) with a single pump (what do you mean you don’t take credit cards?!) we made good time and arrived in Morgantown at around 3 p.m.

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After hanging out with Jolene’s boyfriend Will and cat Gilligan, the three girls went to a concert in downtown Morgantown. Saturday morning we checked out the shops and had a leisurely breakfast at an eclectic coffee shop called Blue Moose Cafe. It was a perfect setting for girl talk and catching up. We missed Jolene!  Growing up, you don’t think about your good friends moving far away. Even when you’re separated for college, you assume you’ll all be back together again eventually. But that’s not how real life works.

The sign of true friends, though, is when after months and months of being physically separated, things are exactly the same when you’re all together again.

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Laura’s breakfast at Blue Moose Cafe

Will’s parents own a lake house in Maryland, so we finished off the weekend in the idyllic setting of Deep Creek Lake. We arrived early in the evening on Saturday, ate sandwiches, and then sipped beers on the dock as we waited for the sun to set. It was incredibly relaxing–I’d forgotten what that kind of relaxation feels like. Since cell phone reception was spotty, I didn’t even feel compelled to check my phone, instead just enjoying a good book and good conversation.

The three of us out on the dock at Deep Creek Lake
The three of us out on the dock at Deep Creek Lake (Laura, me, Jolene)

Sunday morning we brewed coffee and espresso and walked down to the lake, watching the picturesque sailboats go by. Later, we sat around on their porch and drank white wine. Will’s parents were incredibly generous throughout the trip, putting together gourmet meals and making sure we all felt at home.

It was a wonderful trip–so great to see Jolene and experience her life in West Virginia. And as Laura said on the way back, we “broke the ice” with this one. More road trips are definitely  in store for us!

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Farmland in Maryland

As sweet as vacations are, it’s always a great feeling to be home. Coming back to Hell’s Kitchen Monday night, I was happy to smell the $1 pizza, feel the pounding music from nearby bars, and hear the sound of hundreds of rolling suitcases hitting the streets.

My own suitcase slung over my shoulder, I walked the flight of stairs up to my apartment, the sunset over Deep Creek Lake  still tangible but fading rapidly into my imagination.

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