This week, Angelica Kitchen (300 East 12th Street, 212-228-2909) owner Leslie McEachern rang the digital alarm with an email informing patrons of the 38-year-old East Village stalwart’s battle against raised rents, bemoaning that “Angelica’s is at risk of becoming a casualty of the business climate and real estate market that has led to the loss of so many other beloved NYC restaurants.” The answer, of course, is asses in seats. And in addition to asking customers to dine frequently, the restaurant will hold a series of Kitchen Table Talks to discuss the issue, which affects all business owners in the community. The first one takes place this Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
Earlier in the year, we spoke with McEachern about Angelica’s history, the decision to add wine and beer, and her outlook on the situation at hand.
Now, you’re the original owner?
No, I am not. As far as we know, Angelica was started in 1976. We do know it was started by three guys on St. Marks Place between First and Second avenue, and one of the guys had an herb store across the street where the smoking store is now. It used to be Angelica herb store. When the beauty parlor across the street vacated, he and some friends decided to open a restaurant there. They called it Angelica Kitchen because the herb store was there, and it was a follow-up to the herb store…and the reason Angelica herb was used was because in Chinese herb, it’s said to expel evil and to strengthen the female energy in everybody. This is hearsay. The guys decided that New York City could use more female energy, and I’ve met very few people who disagree.
I think you’re right.
So Angelica started in those days. It could have been ’74, ’75, but nobody knows for sure. Then the fellows wanted to leave town, and they were going to close it and one of the customers said, “Don’t close it, I’ll buy it.” And they had a handshake deal. This was in ’81. His name was Frank, and he was an artistic director for an ad firm uptown, and he quit his job and came down and started baking apple pie. He was that kind of fellow. He was terrific. I met Frank about two or three months later. I was in town doing store demos for miso products, and Frank and I fell in love and we were going to be married. I moved to New York to be with Frank, but unfortunately, he died of cancer. So I kept the restaurant going on St. Marks because I was very committed to how food is sourced and respecting the land that it’s grown on and trying to generate a very strong market for small, diversified organic growers.
My background was very much on the creative side, so I pretty much just made it up as I went along, which fit with the neighborhood those days. It was still a very open place at the time. The people who ate at the restaurant lived in the neighborhood. It wasn’t until a few years later that the art galleries and the nightclubs that were here started drawing people in, not tourists, the notorious bridge-and-tunnel crowd, and other people from the city, but in the early ’80s and in the ’70s, the people who ate there were very much locals. The guy who ran it had a barter system. People who couldn’t afford the food…could spend some time washing dishes or could bring in lumber they weren’t using. There was this huge pile of stuff accumulated in the basement that was then bartered for food. It was the spirit of it.
My age group — I’m 64 — were coming of age. I was very much an Earth Mama. I’m a notorious hippie. And media started educating people more and more about how you are what you eat and how important it is to eat well. So between the neighborhood opening up, the education factor, the fact that I seemed to have a knack for generating systems and order within the restaurant, we started to grow and we became more popular for all these reasons. Then the landlord did not want to renew the lease. This was in the mid ’80s. So I leased this place on 12th Street and built this restaurant. It’s been tremendous, because our growth over the years has definitely depended on the interest and the education of people of all walks of life and of all social stratas and economic stratas, and that’s been one of my intentions in keeping the prices very reasonable. Because I wanted the people who kept us grounded and economically on our feet in the early days to be able to eat here even though they may have not become economically successful. It’s meant to be accessible to everyone.
How much smaller was the original space?
(Laughs.) It’s so funny you should ask that. The space on St. Marks was 450 square feet total. So that was the dining room that sat 18, the kitchen, the storage, the refrigeration. We didn’t have any storage downstairs; we didn’t have a telephone. It was very compact, shall we say. And we did takeout toward the back, so as we became popular, there would be a line of people through the dining room. There would be a whole snake of people, while everybody else is dining, there’s this takeout line going right through the restaurant. It was so low-key and casual and neighborhood and friendly and funky, and it was like [a feeling of] anything can happen at any time. Things don’t happen. Lots of things happen. What was great about the space itself was that there were so few seats. If there was an empty seat, you could sit at it, and of course that caused quite a bit of friction, because some people weren’t interested in having a stranger sit with them. And some people were interested, depending on who the stranger was. Were they the right sex? It was hilarious. Consequently, I put this community table in, for solo diners.
That’s nice to keep that tradition going.
All the way back from the good old days.
I know John’s [Angelica’s neighbor] is under new ownership, but how long have they had that sign that says they serve vegan food?
Maybe over a year ago. We laughed our tails off. I’m not going to tell you the history. They were interested in lending me money, originally. I was raising money within my customer base, and one of them ate regularly at Angelica and they wanted to back me and they wanted to own the business. I hadn’t even leased this place; I wasn’t interested. They told me I’d be sorry when I didn’t accept the offer to own my business, so I leased my place, and of course, we had lines out the door and they didn’t, and I don’t think they liked it very much. They decided to try to get the overflow and anybody who knows anything about vegan food or is interested in clean eating. We’ve gotten some really good guffaws out of that, and so have our customers.
What are wait times like now?
We had a reputation for always having a line, which is not true. We always have a line from 7:30 to 8:30 at night or on the weekend or lunch, sometimes, but we also have very quiet times. Our business has been down since Hurricane Sandy. I’m having difficulty paying my bills for the first time since starting. There’s a lot of discussion among restaurateurs in the East Village about why. So many places are closing. I’m going to keep this baby up and running. People can’t take Angelica for granted. I’m in negotiation with my landlord and it is ugly and I question, is it worth it? So far, I keep coming up with, yes, it’s worth it.
What kind of damage did you suffer from Sandy?
Well, we lost power, but we did not get flooded. The water came right up to First Avenue, and, of course, we’re between First and Second, but I lost my inventory and was closed for business. I started digging deep into my own pockets. I’m trying to keep up with paying the bills. I’m so surprised, because this is the venerable Angelica Kitchen, but if a lot of our customers knew how challenging it is, maybe they would be more supportive. They say, “That’s my favorite restaurant,” and I say, “When was the last time you were there?” And they say, “Oh, I just haven’t been able to get there.” And I say, “Yeah, well, you better come in, because next time we might not be there.” It is really supply and demand business.
Do you have many longtime employees?
Eighteen years, 20 years, cooking staff — a lot of them have families. I feel very grateful to them for their loyalty, but it’s not a one-way street. It’s not perfect. It’s a job. It’s a business, but people keep coming back. Greg [a server], when he goes on tour with Darwin, all over the world — Darwin’s very hot — he knows he can travel because he’s found a good working home for himself.
Was the decision to bring in beer and wine purely economical?
Well, since business has slowed down, I’ve been soliciting feedback from all kinds of people, and they say you need social media, so I asked the staff and they helped me. Beer and wine, I felt confident we could put together a few choices, but I’m not trying to become a pub or do the latest craft beers. That’s a fabulous thing, but that’s not us, and we’re very clear about that. But I was trying to attract attention to the restaurant. My critics have said we’ve got to come into our time. Another thing I’m told I might need to rethink is credit cards. We put in an ATM and we researched it to get the best possible charge for the customer. I’m looking at ways to generate more ease and convenience for the people who want to come here without them needing to think ahead about their cash. I’d have to raise prices across the board, but why do the people who use cash have to pay for that?
There’s this place, Commerce, that only accepts credit cards.
That’s hilarious. But how’s the food? People talk about that, but they don’t talk about the food. I’m very interested in feeding people healthily. We’ve been doing farm-to-table from the very beginning, since before it was called that. We support 30 farms year-round. It’s very easy to write that on the menu. We’re the source. We really have always done that. We mean it. Our filo dough, we get the right flour from the organic miller and take it to Poseidon from Hell’s Kitchen. They make us filo for Angelica. We make our own pickles, and we love pickling and it’s a great way to preserve the harvest. It’s way too much to cook like this at home. How often do you pick the beans at night and soak them and cook them the next day?
How often do you change your menu?
Our main menu changes seasonally, and we’re constantly doing specials. And if we have leftovers from the previous day’s specials, we call it the “still special.” We do a norimaki every day and a special salad every day. We always have a bean of the day. Today it’s adzuki. And then of course our pastries. We make tea with hibiscus flowers. In the summer we use light miso; it has to do with digestibility. The daily specials totally reflect what we’re given from the farmers. We do puns and some people hate it; some people write, “Will you just give it up already?” We had “Turn Turn Turnips” and “Where Have All the Cauliflowers Gone?” after Pete Seeger died.
Have you noticed a raised level of vegetarian awareness? Do you have more educated diners?
Absolutely. Well, it’s a mix. We get a lot of women who come in when they find out they’re pregnant, because they’re so interested in a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women, one of the things that’s been fabulous, they find out and they start eating here right away, and then they eat here all through the pregnancy and then there they are with the baby, and we seat them in back so they can breastfeed….There’s also a senior citizens center down the street, and our soups are so good — they’re the crown prince of the restaurant — and the seniors like to come up for a bowl of soup and a carrot juice. The New York Times has been very good. These people are part of our cultures, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, they’re talking about the choices we’re making. I think it’s ironic that they never mention Angelica. We’ve learned how to work with oils in ways that are very diverse. Most people wouldn’t spend the money on it the way we do, but we’re committed to having people’s visceral response to eating here be very positive. Every item that’s on our menu is well thought out for those purposes. It’s thought out to the degree that it works for the body altogether. We’re cooking 24 hours, and everything’s handmade every day, starting with midnight prep and the whole night baker shift. We do all this to ensure that everything’s fresh — things like our hummus, certain breads, the pâté, the mashed potatoes.
So is it more of a team effort, or who’s leading the charge?
Rene Durand, who has worked here, I think, seven or eight years — he started as a night porter and then became a dishwasher. Peter Burley was the executive chef at the time, and Rene asked him to teach him how to use a knife. Then he wanted to make a soup, and eventually he became a chef’s assistant. Meanwhile, I helped him get his green card, he started a family, and he is now the steward of the restaurant. Rene went to school to study. As soon as he started soups, we were blown away. He came from a culinary family in Mexico, learning at his mother’s elbow.
We’re very interested in using sea vegetables, because they’re nutritious. We figured out our version of paella, and we don’t use butter; we make a saffron aioli to go on top. We see what the farmers bring and we ad-lib and we’re spontaneous and we also try to think of what are the crowd-pleasers and make sure they show up on the menu. We do lasagna Tuesday, and it worked because it was a slow night so it’s really fun. So we have brown rice noodles; it’s gluten-free if people want to try it.
And how about your wine and beer options? You mentioned biodynamic as a focus.
We found distributors who carried exclusively organic wine. We didn’t have money to build out a bar, so we have our expediter who expedites the food expediting the beer and wine. We couldn’t do a long list, but we tried to stay true to our roots. Our identity is affordable — we’re not trying to be four stars; we’re trying to be four stars in our identity. I found a beautiful biodynamic cava. We picked different ones that gave people a choice, but also fit the criteria of eating here. We have one lager, Sam Smith, and one dark lager, which is German, and then hard cider.
As longtime ambassadors of vegetarian cuisine in New York, what’s your take on the current state of vegetarian and vegan dining? Dirt Candy is expanding, but then a place like Foodswings closes.
Like Kate’s Joint — it was on 5th Street and Avenue B — it was vegetarian but it was all junk food. It was punk rockers, people were going there to get their hit, but they closed, too. Staff here like to talk about Foodswings; they’d go there for their guilty pleasures. The fact that vegan has become an everyday word is very good because it means there’s a curiosity. Most menus can be adapted, no matter what the restaurant. Same with gluten-free. Girl Scout cookies now have a gluten-free cookie. All of this is speaking toward people making noise about what they want. If there’s integrity behind the claims on people’s menus, it’s good. More people are trying to eat cleaner, and that’s good. I think it’s fabulous. Next door, John’s is not doing clean food. They use crappy ingredients, so that’s the dichotomy in having vegan and vegetarian become much more commonplace. People who are trying to do the right thing are being misled because they don’t know what to ask for. That’s a bunch of bullshit. You have to be pretty damn smart to eat clean in Whole Foods; they’ve got a bunch of crap. They advertise themselves as being the epitome of health, and they’re not. It’s going to have its charlatans, some of them intentional, some of them not. It’s up to each of us to be informed, and that’s a lot to ask. If people really want to eat well, they should just come to Angelica Kitchen.