Savoring Gotham, edited by Andrew F Smith, book review: Munch your way round the Big Apple

Savoring Gotham will stir memories and suggest tasty possibilities for future visits

Christopher Hirst
Thursday 07 January 2016 18:22 GMT
Tasty: Katz’s Deli, in New York, 2014
Tasty: Katz’s Deli, in New York, 2014 (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

On my first visit to New York in 1975, I was much taken by a chain of coffee bars called Chock full o' Nuts. It was a great name (the coffee was only so so) but mysterious. Shouldn't it be beans? On subsequent visits, I looked in vain for these cheery outlets. Savoring Gotham explains both the alluring name and its disappearance. It turns out that Chock full o' Nuts originally applied to a chain of nut shops, which were converted into cafés during the depression. From a high point of 125 outlets, the chain had vanished by 1990.

For anyone who has munched their way round the Big Apple, Savoring Gotham will stir memories and suggest tasty possibilities for future visits. From this prodigious larder, I discovered that my favourite New York restaurant has "British roots". Founded in 1913, the Grand Central Oyster Bar was "patterned after the Palm Court at London's Ritz Carlton Hotel". A few steps down the price scale, I was once a regular at the Papaya King hotdog stand on East 86th St. While conceding that papaya juice and hotdog is "a strange pairing", Savoring Gotham says that it "led to a slew of imitators". Though Papaya King's slogan "tastier than filet mignon" may be slightly hyperbolic, I've never had a better dog for the dosh.

My luck did not hold with the mysterious Jewish stuffed dumpling known as a knish ("the 'K' is pronounced"). Savoring Gotham notes that the Larry David character in Woody Allen's Whatever Works described the version from the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery on Houston Street as "delicious things… I don't want to know what's in them". The one I tried from another knishery was utterly bereft of flavour.

On the plus side, the pickled cucumber plucked for me from a dustbin-sized plastic tub at Guss' Pickles on the Lower East Side (now departed), explained why these pungent treats "solidified New York's position as the nation's pickle capital". Across town, Zabar's sprawling Jewish deli on the Upper West Side has become my obligatory final stop to bring a taste of New York back to London but the loudspeaker announcements are so hectoring that I agree with Nora Ephron: "It gives the impression of warmth without being truly friendly."

Savoring Gotham steers us away from the cheesecake at Lindy's, immortalised as Mindy's in Damon Runyon's stories: "The New York- centric flavour of the originals is gone and they play mostly to the deep-pocketed tourist trade." You can, however, find the echt version at Junior's Restaurant, whose cheesecake is "one of New York City's purest pleasures".

The book is as omniscient as it is omnivorous. The spread of topics extends to Ladies Who Lunch (Le Pavillon provided paper skirts for ladies rash enough to enter in pantsuits), Slang (mickey finn, schmear, soda jerk…) and Edward Hopper ("four of his most famous paintings are set in modest New York City eateries").

There are just a couple of notable omissions. It skips Umberto's Clam House, where the slaying of gangster Joey Gallo in 1972 inspired a Dylan song, and the entry for Katz's Delicatessen, the setting for Meg Ryan's "orgasm" in When Harry Met Sally, bizarrely omits its celebrated slogan, "Send a salami to your boy in the army". Otherwise, this splendid book gives you the works.

OUP, £25. Order at £21.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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