The Trencherman: Eating Our Way Through New York History

Introducing a new food column for the Village Voice

The Waverly Diner in Greenwich Village STACY WALSH ROSENSTOCK/ALAMY

On the tenth page of the first issue of the Village Voice, published on October 26, 1955, the anonymous restaurant critic known to history only as “dhs” writes, “The Village may well be touted for its theatre, art galleries, grog shops and assorted cultural pursuits but for the tried and true trenchman this is all, so to speak, gravy. He, the trencherman,” the critic continues, “culls kitchens as assiduously as his poetic friends scan sonnets.” And he, the trencherman, was undoubtedly equally rewarded. For dhs, the Village was a “multi-lingual dining hall” stuffed with “justly famed” Italian joints, “sundry excellent steak-and-chop houses,” and “sea-food restaurants.” Holding forth in these booths, from these stools, leaning on the counter, cigarettes in hand, were the best minds of his generation. On his adventures, dhs might well have run into everyone from the devilishly handsome Jack Kerouac, to Allen Ginsberg in all his pre–holy man bookishness, to Joan Didion, James Baldwin, C. Wright Mills, and Doris Day, to Willem de Kooning, drunk as usual, and Frank O’Hara, for whom there would be no Lunch Poems had there not been lunch.

In the first review, the critic visits Potpourri, a speck of a spot at 104 Washington Place, just west of Sixth Avenue, a few minutes from the Voice’s first office on 22 Greenwich Avenue. “This engaging little grotto,” he wrote, “specializes in, but is not restricted to, East European and Near Eastern cuisine.” From the vast and varied menu, which included braised baby lamb tongue à la Helsinki and Hawaiian steak, dhs chose the beef stroganoff (“a superb casserole”), dolmades, and chorba, which he called “the best soup I’ve ever had. Bar None.”

The Voice's first-ever restaurant reviewR.C. BAKER

There was but a small window in which dhs could have enjoyed Potpourri. The restaurant, according to the granddaughter of its owners, existed for only two or three years. Its owners, Max and Mae Nemiroff, were habitual, if not overly successful, restaurateurs who had, at one point, an Israeli nightclub in midtown, Habibi Israel Café, and Club Troika, a Russian-themed nightclub and restaurant in Washington, D.C., serving eels ecossaise and broiled shashlick. More notably, they were the parents of Bob Nemiroff, who, in 1953, married the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, perhaps best known for A Raisin in the Sun. In fact, as Joi Gresham, Nemiroff’s daughter and the director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, tells me, “Lorraine worked at Potpourri, waiting and busing tables. But,” she added, “ everyone said she was a terrible waitress.”

By the time Gresham was old enough to remember the stories her grandmother told her, Potpourri had long been closed. But from what she gleaned from weekends with her grandmother at their house in Croton-on-Hudson, the tiny basement space was filled with hard-up artists, singers, actors, and playwrights Bob dragged over from NYU. “My grandmother always fed them.”

Long gone are the days when patronage of the arts devolved to kindly restaurateurs. Long dead are Max and Mae and Bob and Lorraine. Long past the days of Potpourri. On a recent swing down the block, I find the address occupied by a barbershop called Wicked Ways, and, down a few stairs, a massage parlor from whose thin stalls emerge the grunts of old men. They sound like grumpy machinery creaking, and the air reeks of baby oil and exploitation.

Does one despair? Hardly. One simply walks north. Though the Village is much changed, a block north on Waverly Place, the Waverly Diner occupies the same corner as it has for the last 35 years. In 2011, the restaurant underwent renovation. Some things have changed. To the consternation of neon aficionados, the words “Steaks Chops Seafood” no longer glow from the sign above the door. To the chagrin of actors — and their mothers — the old black-and-white framed photographs of thespians that had once lined the walls are gone too. But the heart remains beating, 24-7. It wasn’t an existential renovation, what you might call an anagnorisis renovation, the kind that turned Oedipus into a sad sack or the Minetta Tavern into “Minetta Tavern” or Chumley’s into “Chumley’s” . The Waverly Diner is cleaner now, but it hasn’t lost its purity.

With lace-rimmed paper hearts hanging in the window and from the wall, the diner has never looked so fetching as it does on this mid-morning weekday. When I stop by, every table is full, every counter seat taken. Ditto the four-top booths, the two-top booths, and even the one-sided table by the door, with four chairs for lonely hearts to watch the world go by from. Each together in his or her aloneness.

The menu is as ridiculously long as I remember from my late-night visits as an NYU student, and placed on the table with the same professional disregard by black-vested waiters who wait by the door like personal trainers at a gym. But there are some more courtly touches, too, these days. “May we suggest a fruit and cheese platter or a cheese platter?” the menu asks on the first page. At the bottom of the “Potatopia” page — which presents, among other things, fries in their disco, pizza, and cheese permutations — five sauces, from BBQ sauce, tomato sauce, marinara sauce, cocktail sauce, and honey mustard (which isn’t a sauce), are suggested as possible partners for the baked potato, which itself is presented in five iterations, from sweet to stuffed with broccoli and cheese.

A survey of the tables reveals the gloriously disparate tastes of the patrons. A 24-7 restaurant operates on its own circadian rhythms, only loosely correlated to the natural ones. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are here unmoored from traditional time frames, so that the restaurant’s tables form a culinary Pompeii. Each diner is caught wherever he is in his life. At 10 a.m, one finds spaghetti and meatballs, a daily special; golden waffles with tufts of whipped cream that look like El Dorado seen from an airplane; a Romanian steak, well-charred and glistening; as well as the people for whom those choices make the most sense. I can only speculate on the road by which an old man with limpid blue eyes came to order a platter of shimmering Portuguese sardines, splayed out on a pellucid sheet of lettuce, but it must have been long and winding and very interesting.

A "DHS" review from 1956, compete with an ad trumpeting the review of PotpourriR.C. BAKER

A few days later, I stop by for a late dinner, around 10 p.m. on a Monday night. Alone, I work my way through a Waverly Melt, a chocolate egg cream, a homemade orangeade, a plate of pizza fries, and a slice of strawberry shortcake. It’s an odd jumble of dishes, chosen more to be a representative sample than for any internal cohesion. And of all that I eat, nothing is amiss. The Waverly Melt, essentially a patty melt, is just as greasy as it should be. The hamburger patty sweats it out under a swelter of sautéed onions and a gooey blanket of American cheese, while being kept somewhat contained by grilled butter-soaked white bread. The pizza fries are steak-cut, and though they appear as abashed by the extraneous toppings as a dog does a sweater, they are nonetheless dignified and delicious. The egg cream beats Gem Spa and the orangeade would beat any other in the city, if only it were served more. The only misstep was the strawberry shortcake, from whom days in the display case sapped a certain joie de vivre. Overall, the menu is a major chord, a close rhyme, a base hit. One gets the same satisfaction eating from it as one does patting the flank of a horse, a deep resonant sense of solidity.

In these pages in the weeks and years to come, I will revisit great good places like these of the Village and beyond, the restaurants that fall in the long trough between novelty and obsolescence, too old for excitement and too young for elegy. These are the restaurants at risk of vanishing, to be caught only by Jeremiah Moss, New York’s greatest catcher in the rye. The kind of restaurants that drew the attention of Joseph Mitchell and Meyer Berger and the affection of nameless hungry hordes yearning for egg salad.

They are, alas, few and far between, but they are still there. And I, the trencherman, will cull them assiduously. For though Potpourri and its ilk have likely gone quietly into the night, as the bad waiter but great writer Lorraine Hansberry writes in A Raisin in the Sun, “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.”