In the hustle of New York City, it is rare to feel instantly comfortable and at home at a restaurant. You need an inviting dining room, a stellar front-door team, and servers who don’t seem like they have somewhere else more important to be. Get those things right, though, and a first impression can turn into a lasting love affair. Prune (54 East 1st Street, 212-677-6221) gets it right, and other restaurants should learn from its example.
Prune opened in 1999 (the same year Santana and Rob Thomas got together to make musical history, you might recall), and it has been a strong pint-sized voice in the dining scene since. Headed by chef and lauded author Gabrielle Hamilton, its light-pink color scheme and effortlessly quaint design make it feel like an excellent neighborhood restaurant located far from New York City, like, perhaps, Savannah, Georgia. But what separates it from the rest of the cookie-cutter NYC restaurants is this: It’s independent and confident, and it doesn’t get caught up in the competitive-trend rat race that brings down lesser joints.
My lady friend and I dropped into Prune at 8:30 on a recent rainy Saturday night. After walking in, general manager Hannah Norwick glanced over at us with a large smile and said, “Hello again!” We’d only been there once before — we’d stopped by the week prior for a drink, and wound up chatting with her and the bearded and lovely bartender, John. “I can’t believe she remembered us,” my lady friend said. We were off to a good start.
A few minutes later, our coats were checked and we were seated at the last two bar stools. Some cool music was playing (I think it was the Specials). Prune is an easy and small place; you feel a little older and hipper when you dine here because it doesn’t have the frantic vibe of new places. It’s calm but not boring. Guests here know there way around a wine list, and they’ve always collected records.
The food at Prune doesn’t try too hard, either — the most famous dish is, arguably, sardines and Triscuits. There are radishes served with a little salt and butter, and a sexy plate of head-on grilled shrimp, for which the prawns are plated over tangy and smooth anchovy butter. The latter is one of the best dishes on the menu.
And Prune excels at small details. Just before our shrimp arrived, two small espresso cups appeared. “Here’s a little mushroom broth to get you started,” said our server. “It’s great to have you back.” A small few sips’ worth were placed in each cup; the soup was rich and mellow, a perfect fortification against a drop in mercury or a rise in your forehead temperature. It was like a liquid mushroom — as if you’d snapped your fingers above a shiitake and it turned into a drink.
More evidence of Prune’s attention to detail came with dessert, when we ordered the coffee tart with sweet cream ice cream. The slice of tart was served next to a chilled glass in which the ice cream sat. This solved the problem of your cold ice cream melting into your warm tart before you could finish it.
When you ask for a check, a few small rough chunks of dark chocolate come with your bill. It’s part of the way the staff here says thanks.
Two hours after we began, we were outside, full and happily buzzed. Prune is a classic that still delivers, sixteen years into its run.