On a recent Friday evening, assorted groups of people were waiting on the sidewalk, passing the time until their tables were ready. The crowd was mostly locals, though a few part-time models were standing just off the curb, next to a kid wearing a “Welcome to NYU” shirt, and his parents. This will almost certainly be your introduction to Cafe Mogador (101 St. Marks Place, 212- 677-2226).
Located only a half-block from Tompkins Square Park, Mogador is, arguably, the truest culinary expression of what was once called a modern East Village restaurant. It’s hip, laid back, and older than it seems (it opened in 1983), but it’s also vibrant. The few highly coveted tables outside always seem to showcase the latest in dog trends (this year it appears French bulldogs and pugs are in; terriers are out). Inside, a lightly decorated Moroccan dining room with wooden floors, tables, and chairs makes you feel comfortable and at ease. The café serves ultra-reliable Mediterranean fare from breakfast through dinner, and it’s part of the East Village fabric; it’s both anchor and guide.
Owner Rivka Orlin came to New York City from her home in Essaouira, Morocco, at the start of the 1980s, and helped her recently transplanted brother run Cafe Orlin, still in operation just down the street. Shortly after, the siblings heard the space at 101 St. Marks was becoming available, so they opened a second restaurant, using recipes from their mother in the kitchen and naming it after the small town in Essaouira where their Israeli-Moroccan family came from. Mogador is now run by Rivka’s nephew, Gal, and cousin, Ariela.
Over the years the restaurant has grown in size; it now takes up what was originally two storefronts. “It feels unlike any other restaurant in New York to me: unfussy, devoid of a scene despite how, on any given night, you might find yourself sitting next to a supermodel or a Beastie Boy,” says longtime regular Molly Erman.
But to this day, many of the original menu’s dishes remain, from the house-made merguez sausage to a delicate vegetable tagine with couscous. Just about everything on the menu is good; the kitchen doesn’t cook things it shouldn’t.
Start with traditional hummus, a beet salad, or tabouli, and don’t skip the pita, which is always toasted and lightly buttered. Move next to marinated lamb over grilled vegetables or lamb with chickpeas and caramelized raisins. And be sure to peruse the specials.
Sit at the bar, where the service is best, and take in a little early Herbie Hancock from the speakers above while you eat.