Press-New York Times
The Personal Touch, Right Down to the Name
New York City Travel Guide
By Seth Kugel
Next time you’re in New York, be sure to say hi to Mary, Sunita, Roslyn, Jeffrey and Roni-Sue.
They’re proprietors of a rare kind of Manhattan business: shops and restaurants named for living, breathing people who actually own and operate the places themselves.
Places named after real live people are even rarer than they seem. Peter Luger of steakhouse fame died in 1941, and F. A. O. Schwarz sold his last toy long before that. Duane Reade is named for two downtown streets, not some visionary pharmacist. And if you ask to speak to Joe at the cafe of the same name, you’ll find yourself chatting with a dark brown liquid that tastes great but is not much of a conversationalist.
But in some eponymous businesses, the presence of the owner gives a charmingly old-fashioned feel to the place. Squeeze into the diminutive bar named Sunita on the Lower East Side and you’ll almost certainly find Sunita Lofters, the owner and almost certainly the only Guyanese-born chemist running a bar in hipsterland.
She opened the laid-back, neighborhoody bar in 2003 simply because it’s what she “always wanted to do,” she said. This is not the place for a beer, what with Ms. Lofters’s carefully concocted drinks like her jalapeño passion martini (vodka infused with peppers, passion fruit purée, heat level modified to taste). Oh, and she’s easy to distinguish from the other employees, because there are no other employees: she opens and closes, greets, bounces, bartends, cleans, takes deliveries, mops up and keeps the books.
Unlike Ms. Lofters, the restaurateur Pichet Ong doesn’t work alone. But he does spend virtually every day at P*ong, the semi-desserterie that opened in 2006 and got a star from the New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni in 2007. The place is named after himself, Mr. Ong likes to note, not the 1970s video game of nearly the same name.
His menu is split into savory, sweet-and-savory and sweet sections, enabling you to have a 10- or 13-course tasting menu or just stop by for a “simple” multi-course dessert. It’s one of those places where oddball ingredients come together in unusual ways: “strange flavor eggplant,” for example, uses quinoa, walnut, mint and ricotta; and what would those chiogga beets be without black garlic ice cream? If your answer is “better,” chances are you can address your complaint to Mr. Ong: he’s the guy manning the savory station at the open kitchen. Or serving as bartender. Or maître d’. Or waiter. Or next door frosting cupcakes at his bakery, Batch.
Then there’s Mary Redding, who mans the kitchen at Mary’s Fish Camp, the West Village restaurant specializing in, surprise, seafood. That includes a popular lobster roll that comes with distracting razor-thin fries — as in, their arrival at neighboring tables distracts you from perusing the menu. The place is not directly named for Mary, but after a campground in Florida Mary used to go to when she was little that happened to be named for another Mary. But that’s being picky.
You may not get a chance to chat with Mary, but just try not to talk with Roslyn Grant, who runs Roslyn, an Upper West Side jewelry and hat shop. Her store specializes not only in re-created vintage engagement rings and original hats, but also in one-on-one service from Ms. Grant, the elegantly decked-out owner who presides over the place in a somewhat regal style.
She’s a bit gruff at times — she interrupted a sales pitch recently to snap “Too loud!” at an employee fiddling with the store’s music system — but that beats apathetic any day. If you’re looking for a gift, be prepared to answer a barrage of questions about the giftee: eye color, hair style, fashion sense and what she does for a living. In fact, you’d save some time by bringing her photo and résumé.
THE eponymy epicenter of Manhattan, however, has to be the indoor Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. Among the many owner-operated shops, the most famous is Shopsins, the legendary former West Village restaurant run by the foul-mouthed eccentric, prolific sandwich inventor and soon to be author Kenny Shopsin.
His nutty menu has hundreds of options, many of which sound awful but somehow all taste great as long as you like the individual ingredients. For example, don’t dare question a cranberry milkshake. “You like cranberries?” says Zack, a Shopsin son with a mouth similar to his dad’s that makes exact quotations impossible. (Add vulgarities where grammatically correct.) “You like ice cream? You like milk?”
By the way, the family doesn’t adhere to the work ethic of Sunita Lofters and Pichet Ong: it’s open only 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. (The whole market is closed Sundays.)
Next door to Shopsins is Saxelby Cheesemongers (where you can most likely say hi to Anne Saxelby), and toward the other end of the market you’ll find the fourth-generation butcher Jeffrey Ruhalter at Jeffrey’s on Essex, and Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, a postage-stamp-size candy shop specializing in butter crunch, truffles and whatever the owner Rhonda (a k a Roni-Sue) Kave comes up with. The store’s name — and its throwback sign — date back to a children’s clothing shop her mom named for her when she was a kid in South Jersey.
One of her recent offerings, the disgusting-sounding but highly addictive chocolate-covered bacon she calls Pig Candy, is an unusual collaboration among eponymous shopowners. The bacon comes from Jeffrey, is deep-fried by the Shopsins and then dipped in chocolate by Roni Sue herself. Now if only they knew the name of the pig.
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