With Understated Cool, Lovely Day Serves Comforting Thai Food in Soho
Lovely Day's summer rolls, papaya salad and long beans with chili
Kevin Kessler for the Village Voice
It was noon and Kazusa Jibiki sat in the corner of her restaurant on an almost perfect day in SoHo. Wearing a free-flowing white dress with thin, horizontal stripes, Kazusa, quiet and curious, was searching for the exact word; “Yes, like melting pot.” she said, describing the desire to have the restaurant she founded be much like the city in which it exists. And since 2003, Lovely Day (196 Elizabeth Street, 212-925-3310) has been just that — a mixture of the finest parts of this and that, all thrown together, to create something new.
Born east of Tokyo, Kazusa, first came to this country in the early 1990’s after her parents enrolled her to study English at a small college in Westchester, for fear that New York City might be a little too dangerous. From there it was on to New York University for a business degree. While a student, she befriended some local restaurateurs and asked to help out at their restaurants in her down time, learning what it took to open and run a restaurant. Also during that time, she was hired by a Japanese company to look for young New York fashion designers for the Japanese market. The young designer she ‘found’ had just left Perry Ellis; his name was Marc Jacobs.
In the mid-1990’s Kasuza, who'd always had an artistic eye, helped a friend design hair accessories. “Like crystal bands on clear elastics,” Kazusa describes, and they ended up selling thousands of them. With her earnings, she eventually began looking for a space for her own restaurant.
The spot she found was originally a vegetable storage room, with no door – just a roll-down gate. “There were literally hundreds of cabbages," said Kazusa. 196 Elizabeth Street was on a still dangerous block in 2003. ”You would leave your bike for ten seconds and then it would be gone," she added.
Setting out to make the food accessible and comforting, Kazusa centered the menu around some of her favorite dishes, like Thai shrimp curry and Japanese fried rice. A local Thai chef collaborated with her on the menu and the place opened up a just a short time later.
With a few outside tables, Lovely Day exists on a street of SoHo still relatively untouched. The Elizabeth Street Garden is just a few feet to the right and across the street; a nail salon sits on one side and the restaurant Peasant on the other.
Kazusa working the floor
“It’s like a Quentin Tarantino set,” my companion said when we recently went for dinner. With floral-stenciled walls, red leather booths from an old New Jersey diner, and mosaic- tile flooring from a previous life, Lovely Day looks like a 1970’s American-Japanese diner. A seven-stool bar sits on the left and a few small two-tops sit in close proximity to large windows facing the street. The service is easy and relaxed, and all servers seem to be full-time, part-time models. The clientele is a mix of cool designers, musicians, and lots of people wearing Birkenstocks. A mix of James Brown and Aaron Neville plays at the correct volume and a few assorted groups of people are usually waiting for tables outside.
A place in the middle of SoHo serving entrees under $20 is a good thing; lunch for two can be had for $25 with tip. I always seem to order a Thai-basil side dish whenever I go, and a vodka, muddled mint and lemonade cocktail is just as delicious as it is refreshing. The menu is simple; the food is not supposed to blow you away, it’s comforting. A green papaya salad with avocado, fish sauce and tomatoes ($8) is excellent. This past week a special sushi-grade tuna and avocado was fresh and easy.
A few years ago, Kazusa opened up a downstairs portion of the restaurant, in what use to be another storage room. Decorated like the coolest 1970’s cocktail den that Osaka ever saw, the room is relaxing — and popular. Kazusa said opening the basement lounge has helped reduce wait times for dinner patrons. In addition, patrons still line up early for Lovely Day’s famed brunch, where you can get an Irish-style breakfast of baked beans and pork sausage, along with some miso soup. Its fun and different, just like the city it calls home.
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