As we wrote our list of 99 Essential Restaurants™ in Lower Manhattan, we spoke to many of the chefs, owners, and general managers who run the restaurants. We asked them to tell us about the history of their neighborhoods and eateries, recount good memories, and talk to us about what’s hardest about running a restaurant in New York.
Some of these interviews were too good not to share, like the one that follows with City Bakery‘s Maury Rubin.
What year did you open?
1990. Union Square had just been re-landscaped to drive out the drug trade. Greenmarket was about a dozen farmers twice a week. Both ends of Union Square were dark: On the north, the present Barnes & Noble was a boarded up eyesore; to the south, the Whole Foods today was an old department store from yesterday and empty for years. Lower Fifth Avenue was mostly empty or ancient family businesses, like B. Shackman, a toy store at the corner of 16th and Fifth, which was like walking into a 1930’s time machine. Seventeenth Street, home to the first City Bakery, was an ugly duckling block with crooked sidewalks, and was home to the fall-off-the-truck perfume business in NYC. Lou’s Perfume Palace was across the street from us, with a check cashing place next door. There was a Sanford and Son-like hardware store down the block — an incredible mess in every inch from floor to ceiling. That space today is Journelle Luxury Lingerie.
What’s your philosophy?
Too much philosophy in too many kitchens today.
What was your original vision for this restaurant, and how has that evolved?
A creative, delicious place. I wanted to breathe life and ideas into the neighborhood bakery, to make it a sensory experience, personal, up-to-date with the changing food world at that time, engaging and one-of-a-kind. That has evolved nicely.
What dishes can you not take off the menu?
Pretzel croissant, hot chocolate, cookies, cookies, cookies, lots of salads, and mac & cheese.
What are your favorite memories of the restaurant?
A lifetime of memories. Mostly about staff and connecting with customers and all of the people who are central to growing a business. Stories for ages. Here are five other thoughts that come to mind:
1. The first day of construction of the first City Bakery. Opening the door at 22 East 17th Street into a minefield of dust flying everywhere with plaster being ripped off the walls.
2. Dodging speeding garbage trucks crossing 14th Street at 2:30 a.m. every night walking to work. I remain certain to this day they were hellbent on hitting anything that got in their way and having a grand old time.
3. The peace and quiet of Greenmarket in the early morning, and talking with farmers before the rest of NY woke up (and before Greenmarket became a Thing To Do). Those relationships remain some of the most sacred.
4. Making a birthday cake for Irving Penn.
5. The first time I saw Alice Waters standing in line in the bakery for breakfast one morning.
How do you fit in the neighborhood?
In the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum that a house should be of the hill, not on it, I do humbly believe City Bakery is of this neighborhood, not simply in it. We opened at a moment when Union Square was being recast into it’s present profile and fabulousness. We were one of the early businesses that contributed to that evolution, and we remain today vital and part of the fabric of this area.
What is your distinct place in the NYC dining scene?
I further humbly believe there is only one City Bakery in NYC and the country. Our food and drinks, total environment, and experience remain completely unique in the food biz.
What’s best about being part of the NYC restaurant industry?
It’s a helluva town to do well in.
What’s the hardest part about having a restaurant in NYC?
Nothing is not hard about this. Rating the hardest is a thought I’m too tired to even process.