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
, 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
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
, 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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
: 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.
Labels: Alberta Hunter, Beyonce, cat, croque monsieur, DiCaprio, Dyckman Houses, french fries, Hudson River, Inwood, Lady Gaga, La Marina, lunch, NYCHA, senior center, The Cookery, Upper Manhattan