Janis Siegel’s West Village Then and Now

by Janis Siegel

Janis Siegel is a nine-time Grammy winning solo artist and founding member of The Manhattan Transfer.  Since 1982, she has also built a successful solo career spawning many highly acclaimed and finely crafted solo albums as well as numerous collaborative projects amassing a large international fan base and garnering consistently high critical praise.  Additionally, Janis’ culinary passion finds expression on her blog, How I Spent My Per Diem, penned under the nom-de-plume, Eydie Gourmet.

I moved to the West Village in 1981, for good.

As a native Brooklynite, I spent a good part of my childhood and certainly my teen years, wandering around this singular and exceptional city, enjoying and tasting everything that was offered. Ahhh … the theatre, the live music, the neighborhoods, the history, the danger, the Shakespeare In The Park, music in the Sheep Meadow with a bottle of Boone’s Farm, the Cloisters, boating on Central Park Lake, (a high school girl’s dream of ultimate romance) Nathan’s hot dogs and Chinatown.

But as a hippy girl with a guitar, it was the West Village that sparked my passion and ignited the youthful dream that I would live here someday, among the freaks, artistes, writers and other denizens of Bohemia.

In 1981, my neighborhood still retained much of its original Italian character. On Bleecker St. the original Murray’s Cheese was a tiny storefront, Zito’s Bread pumped out fresh semolina and prosciutto loaves every night in their basement lair, before the artisanal pizza craze, John’s and Joe’s were the only game in town for really great pizza in our neighborhood, Aphrodisia was the place to go for exotic spices and herbs, and next door, a wonderful Italian guy made fresh mozzarella every other day. Faiccos Pork Store sold homemade sausage, homemade ricotta,various pig parts, and Italian bar food like fried ravioli and arancini.

Cafe Lucca was my hang, over at Father Demo Square. Used to sit and play backgammon, sip my cappuccino, and actually talk to people. Mr. Onofrio Ottomanelli ran his butcher shop along with his sons and nephews. It was there and only there I was able to quench my insatiable lust for fresh game: wild boar, pheasant, goose and every fall, homemade venison sausage.There were a couple of “social clubs“ on Bedford St. for the Italians. Only God knows what went on in there, but I knew I wanted to be a friendly neighbor. One time I wandered into one of these storefronts because I saw a cappuccino machine — it wasn’t that easy to get one of those at that time. The older Italian man was clearly startled to see me, since the place was really not a cappuccino bar but a front for “something else.” He hesitated, then decided to serve me a quick cappuccino and get me the f*** outta there.

My neighborhood was quieter at that time and a little out of the way from the bridge and tunnel Snookis and Pauly Ds that filled up (and still fill up) Bleecker and Christopher Streets on a weekend night.

My favorite places in the neighborhood THEN:

Shopsin’s: run by the mad genius cook Kenny Shopsin and staffed by Evie his wife and all his kids. The food was off the hook and the menu four pages long, filled with Kenny’s creations. When I first moved to my apartment, Shopsin’s was just a grocery store where they sold fresh sandwiches every day. There’d be a line halfway down the block for these creation. Kenny roasted a whole turkey and a whole roast beef fresh every day. Insane! He gradually expanded and expanded his menu till he became a restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and a very early dinner. (He’d pretty much open and close whenever he felt like it.) The place was littered with cool toys, games and penny candy. If you were on the right side of Kenny, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for you. But woe to those who pissed him off.

Kenny introduced me to one of my dearest friends, film director Steve Lippman, cause he thought we should know each other. Here’s a quick story I love: My son, when a young tadpole, was a Barney fan. He carried the purple dinosaur with him everywhere. One summer day, we were passing by Shopsin’s – Gabe in his stroller clutching his Barney doll and Kenny morosely hanging out by the fire hydrant letting the flies buzz around his head. As we passed, we heard Kenny darkly mutter, “Barney sucks.” My darling son responded with perfect seriousness, “But Barney still loves you Kenny.”

Cucina Stagionale: Our local B.Y.O.B. spot right on Bleecker, where I would have dinner probably two or three times a week.. “Let’s go to The Cucina tonight,” was the cry in my house. It was there I introduced my parents to my future ex-husband and father of my child. Finally…someone to bring home to mama! Pre-Batali, the Cucina served hefty portions of Italian classics with some occasionally interesting variations. It was a real neighborhood joint with reasonable prices and even an early-bird special.

Balduccis: Now replaced by Citarella, this used to be the only place to get “gourmet” ingredients and really prime produce before Dean and DeLuca opened in Soho. I could also find essential Italian ingredients there like salt cod, escarole and puntarelle.

The Pink Tea Cup: When I was in high school this place was the rage, with insanely great jukebox, huge portions and genuine greasy spoon soul food. Nothing like the tarted up place that has moved to the much missed Sweet Rhythm spot on 7th Ave. South. When I moved to the village, I still occasionally went to this place for a big, post-drinking breakfast.

Florent: Richly mourned, this place was the greatest late nightspot ever, on a par with La Coupole in Paris. Located in the meatpacking district, (where, when I was growing up, you only went to if you wanted to get robbed, raped, actually buy wholesale meat or wanted to frequent one of the hard core gay clubs.) it was the place everyone went to after late-night work, after a date, if you had insomnia, after clubbing, and there would be such a diverse crowd including drag queens, policemen, couples, city workers. My favorite late night meal? Mussels and frites with a bottle of Chablis.

Bradleys: the ultimate piano jazz bar. I saw so much great music there and sat in with the great Jimmy Rowles as a young whippersnapper, heard Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, Tommy Flanagan and so many others. There’s been nothing to replace this although The Knickerbocker on University Place has live music on the weekends and of course there’s The Village Vanguard still going strong.

Mamoun’s: Arguably, the best falafel in the village. When I was a folk singer with a group called Laurel Canyon, we used to perform regularly at Folk City, The Gaslight and The Olive Tree –after 3 sets, nothing hit the spot, was as filling or was as easy on the wallet as a Mamoun’s falafel. Today in 2011, the Israeli born musical director of the Manhattan Transfer. Yaron Gershovsky, still agrees.

Seventh Avenue South: This was the jazz club across the street from me that The Brecker Brothers, Randy and Michael, owned. I could take my binoculars from my living room and see who was playing that night in order to decided whether to pop on over. If I needed ice or liquor or anything else I could just run across the street and get it from the club. I miss that place, what can I say? Always great music, open till 2 or 3AM, a place to meet musicians and sit in, and wonderful management.

My favorite places NOW:

Snack Taverna: 63 Bedford (at Morton) in the space where Shopsin’s used to be, this place keeps getting better. A modern take on Greek cuisine, now open for breakfast. The owners are two cool guys who helped me learn to cook some Greek dishes, listened to my octopus cooking travails and helped me out with getting some pure tarama and decent pita.

Janis with Jay Lesiger, left, and Tom Klebba in front of the Chelsea Pines Inn

Lupa (170 Thompson St) and Babbo (110 Waverly Place) – Lupa is more of a family style Roman trattoria…crowded and lively, and did I mention crowded? A fun place to go with a bunch of friends. The food is pure Batali deliciousness. For a special occasion though, nothing beats Babbo, with its sumptuous beef cheek ravioli, romantic townhouse ambiance and farm-to-table attitude. What a wine list!

When Mario opened his first restaurant Po on Cornelia St. it was clear that he was into using the absolute best local ingredients in an artful and simple way, sharing with Americans the great culinary traditions of Italy .I used to see him in his signature orange Crocs and cargo shorts, tooling around the neighborhood. Love his pizza place Otto too. Lets face it…he’s awesome and now he’s got Eataly, which is a pretty amazing food space, with its own “vegetable butcher.” I found cardoons there for an authentic bagna cauda.

I Sodi: 105 Christopher – Tuscan menu and wine list – small, intimate space and a woman owner /chef who does indecent things with zucchini and artichokes. Oh yeah, and there are three types of Negronis. Holla!

Little Owl: 90 Bedford (at Grove) A tiny, cozy and scenic space tucked into a corner of the village. Food is simple and delicious New American and you can sit at the bar if you’re alone. It’s always packed.

Pança: 97 7th Ave South – This is my son Gabriel’s favorite neighborhood joint. He adores the different ceviches and the Peruvian corn. I like the rotisserie chicken. Didn’t know much about the diversity and deliciousness of Peruvian cuisine before this place opened…there are Pisco Sours (hic!) and Japanese influenced tiraditos (like ceviche but with no onions) that are scrumptious.

The New French: 522 Hudson St – Casual and eclectic bistro. They have beef pho here, which I love. (have since learned to make it at home) Also there is a salad that is killin’-with yellow beets, pears, gruyere cheese and loads of fresh vegetables.

Mary’s Fish Camp: 64 Charles (at W. 4th) My go-to place for lobster roll, cockles and white beans, steamers, whole fish and interesting, inexpensive white wine. Great music and waitresses too. Just try and resist the hot fudge sundae; I double dare you!

Kin Shop: 469 6th Ave- Came upon this place accidentally after a Weight Watchers meeting. Contemporary Thai –very fresh with a lot of interesting vegetarian options like “Stir Fry of Aquatic Vegetables.”

Westville: 210 W. 10th St.- a whole menu of market fresh vegetables everyday plus one of the best hamburgers in the city served on a Portuguese muffin. Niman Ranch “Fearless” franks, Hebrew National and tofu dogs. Woof!

Blue Hill: 75 Washington Place (bet. 6th Ave & MacDougal St). Probably my favorite dining spot. Grown up, no music till the end of the night, farm-to-table cuisine. The focus is on the food, the wine and the conversation, so be sure to go with someone you actually want to talk to. Superstar Dan Barber is the executive chef, and the sommelier Claire is the bomb.

Sushi Samba: 87 7th Ave South – I love this Sao Paulo combo of Portuguese and Japanese cuisine. Usually when I get off the road (unless I’ve been to Japan or Brazil) my son and I go here to celebrate my return. We sit at the sushi bar, eating tiny, flash -fried river crabs ,and watch the action. If you’re lucky enough to be at the restaurant during Carnivale season (February), there is live samba music and scantily–clad dancers.

Joe’s –The Art Of Coffee: 141 Waverly Pl. (at Gay St) The coffee is so good and occasionally, they feature luridly decorated cupcakes made by Amy Sedaris.

Gobo: 401 6th Ave (bet 8th St and Waverly Place) Ok, I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian but this food rocks. Perfect post hangover or just over the flu food. Afterwards, you feel as if you did something good for yourself, but its not a punishing or deprivation groove ‘cause the food is simply delicious. Wine list and fresh juices. These are a few of my favorite things: green tea noodle with smoked Beijing -style seitan, the chopped romaine salad with smoked tofu and almonds and the New England rolls.

Takashi: 456 Hudson (at Barrow). The polar opposite of Gobo: a celebration of every part of the cow (and I do mean every) at this Korean BBQ place. Very authentic and for carnivores only. Cow’s stomachs anyone?

‘Ino: 21 Bedford St. It’s where I go late at night after a gig. Romantic, in a crowded, noisy, candlelit postmodern way, they serve all kinds of great esoteric Italian wines by the glass and quartino. There are beautiful panini, tramezzini and bruschetta. Open till 2AM or whenever the last customer leaves. I love drinking red wine and holding hands here.

Mas: 39 Downing St.- A rustic farmhouse on quiet Downing St. with exquisite food and drink. Been here twice, once for a very upscale wedding celebration and once on my own. Masterful modern French/Mediterranean cooking.

Jacques Torres: 350 Hudson St. -Two words: hot chocolate

Hercules Fancy Grocery: 27 Morton St. – Mom-and-pop upscale international beer bodega with the added perk of Hercules himself at the helm, adding his Hellenic wisdom and POV to life. If you’re lucky you may catch him playing the bouzouki behind the counter. He always knows what’s up and who’s who in the neighborhood.

Ushiwakamaru: 136 W. Houston (bet. MacDougal & Sullivan ) Authentic and artistic sushi and sashimi-this place is a little under the radar. My friend Lew Soloff, the jazz trumpet player hipped me to it. He’s been to Japan a gadzillion times and knows his monkfish liver. This place, Sushi Samba and Japonica on University and 12th are my favorite sushi places in the village.

So has my neighborhood changed much in 31 years? Yes sir, and it’s lost quite a bit of its pure ethnic character, become very gentrified, and Bleecker St. between W. 10th and Hudson has become like a touristy, mini 5th Avenue…with pricey designer boutiques and The Magnolia Bakery (too trendy from Sex and The City publicity and way too sweet!) On summer weekend nights, the noise from the bars is deafening and I have to close my windows and blast my own music. On the plus side, there’s still Ottomanellis, the bike path along the Hudson is a godsend and my block is still one of the prettiest in NYC. The freaks, artistes, writers are still here, the Film Forum still exists and Sunday mornings until noon or so, are still pretty quiet cause no one is up yet around here. That’s why I still love this neighborhood and its people and why I still want to live here and make my home in this chaotic, restless, vibrant community.

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