Recently, the owners of West 4th’s Cafe Minerva opened a shiny new corner luncheonette and soda shop called Hamilton’s (51 Bank Street, 212-661-1515). Forget the usual flair and picture menus, this is the good old days filtered through a runway lens. Celadon accents offset bare white walls for an almost sterile feel, but the behatted, perky young soda jerks are eager to please. We checked in on lunchtime service to slurp up some manufactured nostalgia with the neighborhood.
“What’s that store across the street?” a diner asked Joel, our fading gigolo host. “How should I know?” he kibitzed, adding, “I’m only kidding. It’s a Marc Jacobs.” A part-time host, he’s a friend of the owners and what some people might call “involved,” which is how I would describe asking my dining partner what she thought of his entire outfit, starting from his porkpie hat and then individually asking for an affirmation about each item down to his shoes, which were presented from all angles in a wobbly, loose-ankled jig.
The area’s turned into a low-rise mall, but somehow prices here are still low. A $12.50 chef’s salad is the most expensive dish on a menu that lists platters of fish and chips, corned beef with cabbage, and turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. “Who knows how long that’ll last,” our host confided. But right now, finding an omelet for under $10 in this part of town feels like a miracle. Breakfast is offered all day, and the shop stays open from 6 a.m. to midnight.
Fairly priced sides make for perfect snacking. We were warned that the fries had been dumbed down while the kitchen is still working out some kinks, and wound up enjoying onion rings that lacked any subtlety. Slightly oily but nonetheless well-seasoned, the alliums sported a thick and crunchy breading. Relieve palate fatigue with roughly chopped coleslaw ($2) that’s lightly seasoned and mercifully fresh, almost like a coleslaw quick pickle.
Based on the tuna salad sandwich ($7.25), we’d go for a full-on melt ($7.50) next time. But something’s gone awry with Hamilton’s turkey reuben ($10). While salt-cured meat lovers can argue that the sandwich is no longer a reuben once corned beef is out of the equation, I’d argue that it’s the accessories that form the sandwich’s recognizable taste. Expecting the mouthwatering collusion of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, I was let down when faced with a cold turkey and coleslaw sandwich on untoasted rye bread. “Customers were complaining that they didn’t like how the turkey tasted, so we switched it,” our waiter relayed.
The rest of the food menu is filled out with cold salad platters, hot dogs and a variety of burgers, and starchy breakfast staples, but Hamilton’s fountain specialties are worth the trip alone; uncommon offerings such as phosphates, lactarts, and puffs being chief among them. With frothy heads that look almost potion-like, the fizzes are delightful — in particular, the Dorian cream, which whips maple syrup and orange into a sippable fervor.
All of the drinks come in tulip glasses, but you’ll need your waiter to help you parse through the selection of 18 ice cream sodas and milkshakes, which have cutesy names like ‘Cattawaba Flip’ and ‘Apple Blossom’, but no details that might help discern how they taste. Egg creams are listed with the ice cream sodas. “We use frozen milk, which is why it’s in that section,” says one of the jerks. Cold milk has long been a hallmark of the best egg creams, but a slim pour of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup (another requisite ingredient) rendered our chocolate egg cream a bit mild.
Hudson Valley company Jane’s provides the luxurious frozen dairy, and it’s wonderfully balanced stuff. Slightly chewy and gentle rather than palate-coating, it’s excellent on its own or scooped into sundaes like the ‘caramel crunch,’ in which smooth vanilla ice cream takes a burnt sugar beating from caramel sauce, soft caramel wafers, and malty grape nuts.
Hamilton’s is a time warp for grownups, but most of all it’s a boon for a neighborhood that’s in desperate need of affordable dining options. That’s something to fizz about.
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