If it's not one thing, it's another: A Tale of Two Lunches

If you took your pencil (remember these?) and drew a line with a bit of a zig zag on a graph reaching from east to west, from river to river on Dyckman Street in Inwood, you could chat and chew among folks spending just 100 cents for lunch (drinks included) to others throwing down several hundred dollars for dinner (drinks included).

This curious eater, certainly no gourmand as evidenced by several lunches washed down with Big Gulps of Diet Coke from 7-Eleven, decided to explore two dining options in upper Manhattan. In the case of the dollar lunch, what and where to eat isn’t an option.

It’s the only thing.

Lunch costs a dollar at the Dyckman Houses Senior Center, and a little bit more, $1.75, for a guest and anyone not a member of the Center, and is served at the same time Monday through Friday, 12 noon to 1:30 in the afternoon. The entrance faces catty-corner to Tenth Avenue and 201st Street, with a few wooden benches and cement tables in front, next to the entrance of another building that looks just like the one next to it and the one next to that.

Many of the men and women staying for lunch have lived in the Dyckman Houses for decades and take long elevator rides down and winding walks to the center. They represent a cross-section of the neighborhood: older African-Americans, newer but older Dominicans, and a few whites and Puerto Ricans scattered throughout. Lunchtime diners come not only to eat, but for the company. Many live alone, their apartments quiet except for the voices and arguments of the television.

A handful of lunchgoers announce their arrivals via Access-a-Ride, escorted out of vans and cars that pull up at the curb to the lush, tree lined grounds of the Dyckman Houses, a public housing complex on the other side of the other side of the tracks. The others arrive by foot, some a bit unsteady, and by walker and wheelchair, and sit in clusters and cliques. A few of the men wear dashing fedoras as they fuel up for another brisk game of dominoes while gaggles of women from towns like San Pedro de Macoris, Santiago, and Santo Domingo trade news from their hometowns. Several men and women sit by themselves, including a man wearing many feathers in his cap, flicking paper lunch tickets until their printed number is called and they can move towards the kitchen for their tray of lunch.

“I’m 82 and a half now,” said Ann Basheradan, who has lived in Inwood for 40 years. She was employed by an arts supply store until it went out of business more than a decade ago. “The food is good,” she complimented. “Something different every day. I have pressure. I can’t eat everything. And the cost is good, too.”

There is no view of the murky waters of the Hudson River here. Actually, there is no view at all. Two rooms with long dining tables and chairs are set up to seat the crowd. There are no hostesses or printed menus that are handed out, just a man who picks up the trays at the end of consumption. The medium sized plastic stereo played Van Morrison, quite a bit louder than the music broadcast at lunchtime at La Marina, which sits at the opposite end of Dyckman Street.

The lunch of the day is written on a large white wipe board: today’s is beef stew partnered with green beans and potatoes, a menu planned several weeks in advance. You can’t just eat anything here. The meals are geared for the older population, some of whom live with hypertension, diabetes, dietary conflicts with medication, less sensitive taste buds, a decreased appetite, and a limited, very limited income.

One woman, a former food service assistant at a brokerage firm downtown, saves a seat for me and points to the chair across from her.

Every meal is paired with low-fat milk, tea or coffee and four ounces of 100% juice. Today’s happens to be apple. Lunch is served on Styrofoam plates placed on top of a plastic wooden tray. The beef stew was tender and filling, and the green beans—called haricot verts on more exclusive menus—and sliced roasted potatoes were well prepared. A little salt could have been added to suit this writer’s taste but since I was in someone else’s house I ate as they did (and it wasn’t permitted). My small container of milk and an orange went into someone else’s purse, part of their meal on another day.

Christopher Virella, who is 87, enjoys the chicken. He moved to the Dyckman Houses in 1973 from Coamo, Puerto Rico, and worked as a waiter at the five star St.Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue until he retired in 1987.

“I come to socialize,” he said. “I live alone. I have many friends here.” He recalled his time serving others. “We would see a lot of royalty. We saw (artist) Salvador Dali, (actors) Kirk Douglas, and Mia Farrow and her mother,” he said.

The St. Regis served renowned French cuisine. “I miss the French cooking,” he said. “The menu would change every day. You don’t find that kind of food nowadays.” He added, “And I miss it.”

On the west end of Dyckman, a chef born and raised in France is preparing lunch at La Marina. With a view of the George Washington Bridge and the shore of New Jersey (but not the Jersey Shore), people also head to commune with their friends. Some go to be seen, others to see, and they arrive by limo, Mercedes, SUV, a few on foot and by yellow taxi or livery car service. Many La Mariners are the same ages as the children and grandchildren of the diners across town and not at all worried about diabetes or blood presure, too young to worry about when they’ll be dying and not all that concerned about how much money is spent on a steak, chicken lollipops, tres leches cake, and bottles of champagne.

Menus printed in black ink on crisp white paper are handed out on clipboards reminiscent of efficient forms handed out at employment interviews or at the doctor's office. Chronic conditions, anyone? But, having been handed greasy vinyl coated menus with spots of ketchup or salsa sauce as if they had been used as placements, these are definitely a more sanitary and pleasant arrangement. 

It’s the fall and soon we’ll be in the gloomy winter months. But just after the end of the summer on the last day that La Marina served lunch before switching menus and hours, one diner had the place all to herself. At least for a little while.  At 3:30 in the afternoon, well after lunch and just before happy hour, it was like lunching at a private club.

An authentic croque monsieur above 86th Street? Never!

Until now.

One restaurant in Inwood serves this delectable sandwich but something is wrong: it tastes like a basic grilled ham and cheese sandwich. And that’s technically what a croque monsieur is, the French version of grilled ham and cheese and topped with béchamel sauce. But it’s the quality of the ingredients, from the bread, ham, cheese, and sauce that make up the sandwich, which is carefully eaten with a knife and fork.

I’ve been eating croque monsieurs since I was a kid, when my father would pile us all into the car for a trip to The Cookery, a restaurant turned jazz club after dark, in Greenwich Village. It’s the same place where Alberta Hunter would sing after being rediscovered but we never saw Alberta. We arrived for lunch, all five of us piled into the car and traveling all the way from Brooklyn to University Place. It was my favorite place, always.

None of my friends or their parents ate there or had even heard of The Cookery so I knew it was some place special. I remember feeling the smoothness of blond wood tables under my fingertips and climbing onto dark wooden chairs, my feet swinging above the floor. I vaguely being greeted as we entered, heading to the same table in the middle of the room, and some sort of sculptures made of kitchen utensils hanging on light wooden walls.

When the waitress handed over our menus, I waved my hand.

“Oh, I don’t need a menu. I’m getting my croque monsieur and chocolate mousse,” I declared, a six year old regular who expected others to pay for her lunch.

My croque monsieur was crispy and cheesy and no interruptions were allowed between bites.  I spooned the chocolate mousse, a creamy and cakey mixture, out of a small bar glass. No one has ever been able to duplicate that chocolate mousse, or the experience.

Oh, I’ve had my croque monsieurs in different restaurants over the years and they were just sandwiches. It was only when I visited in Paris and ordered lunch in a café a block away from the Seine that I was able to taste the sandwich that brought back those trips to The Cookery all over again.

When La Marina first opened, the restaurant didn’t have a menu published online. The hostess answering the telephone very sweetly offered to read it over the telephone. I cringed. She pronounced it as croquet—as in chicken croquettes (crow-ketts) and that left me wondering how good it could possibly be.

The pronunciation was correct the next time I called. It’s pronounced croak, as in frog. I kept putting off going and finally went for lunch after meeting the chef, Pierre Landet, while taking in the view of the Hudson (in actuality, I stopped in to use the ladies room but taking in the view sounds a bit more, well, dignified).  He offered a tour of the kitchen, filled with shiny pots and pans and utensils hanging in groups, which reminded me of the sculptures of The Cookery.

My croque monsieur, which translates literally into Mr. Crunchy in English but the French may tell you that it's something more suggestive, was just that. Crunchy, with delicate slices of ham and cheese and béchamel sauce. And the French fries are the best in the city, well cooked, salted, and crispy. I think Pierre said that they were twice cooked. Lunch doesn’t get any better than this.

A croque monsieur with French fries is $16 with fries. Considering that I saved just under five dollars on subway fare and a couple of hours of traveling time, you’ll get no quarrel from me as to the expense.

Since there was no one else around at this in-between time, I chatted with one of the servers and discovered that both La Marina and I suffered from the same problem. We both had wasps, a problem of them nesting in one part of the riverfront property while their relatives built a nest in my apartment building’s roof vent. Could be worse. . .And then he turned away. We had company, our conversation diverted by a crew of folks here for happy hour and the view.

I won’t ask about the calories in my croque monsieur and memorable French fries; not worried about my pressure yet. Right now, I’ll enjoy the view by the water, sitting with my memories of The Cookery and knowing that I can walk down the block for a fabuloso or squisito or fabuleaux lunch.

Putting this into some sort of perspective, one day I may be having lunch at the Dyckman Houses Senior Center, wearing many feathers in my cap, turning up the stereo and dreaming back to my croque monsieur at La Marina. But for the time being, I’ll live a little and wait for the seasons to slowly change once again so I can enjoy my croque monsieur and fries by the water in the middle of the day when no one else is around.

Note: To order your very own croque monsieur, visit lamarinanyc.com for more information and reservations. For information on Alberta Hunter, head over to Amazon.com for her music. And for more information on the legendary Cookery, you'll want to order a copy of Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People (Music in American Life) at amazon.com/Cafe-Society-Wrong-People-American/dp/0252034139. And the clipboards have just been replaced by red leather (or pleather) menu covers. 


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