In a cubby above the vintage Pepsi-branded letter board menu at Mr. Donahue’s, a vintage peaked policeman’s cap nests next to a photograph of the man who wore it, Purple Heart veteran and former NYPD detective Frank Donahue. The brim of this family heirloom faces out toward this throwback Nolita lunch counter, which chefs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer built in his memory.
The seven-month-old hideaway is a nostalgic new endeavor for the Michelin-starred couple, who’ve explored Redding’s culinary heritage to dazzling effect at their lauded modern-Thai lair, Uncle Boons, since 2013. For Mr. Donahue’s, the duo turned their attention to Danzer’s kin — Donahue was his grandfather — and came away with a Norman Rockwell–esque environment: Paper doilies serve as placemats; crocheted curtains depict rabbits at play; backless tan vinyl-and-chrome stools hug the nine-seat dining room’s skinny L-shaped bar; and the stereo plays blues, big band, and doo-wop tunes. Rolling Rock in the can ($5) is the only beer available.
Danzer and Redding’s menu takes its cues from mid-twentieth-century recipe books and down-home eateries, offering a Southern-style “meat and three” option — you choose a main course, two sides, and a sauce, all of which come plated on old-fashioned glass or china. Curiously, for a place that harks back to simpler, pre-internet times, cash isn’t accepted. But even if they switched to cryptocurrency, the smartly revised classic American fare here would still be well worth the bitcoins.
Take the steelhead trout steak served on the bone, a sturdy cut that’s been all but ditched by most eateries, which usually favor fillets. Rounded and ringed with crisp skin, it’s gentler and sweeter than the salmon it most closely resembles. The fish, flaky and garnished with a retro parsley sprig, tastes as brilliant with the kitchen’s chunky romesco sauce of roasted red peppers and almonds as with a spicy avocado dip. Those same condiments also perk up the rotisserie chicken halves, which arrive juicy and wearing adorable paper poultry frills on their legs.
Then there’s the unforgettable roast beef, which starts out as a whole strip loin nearly camouflaged by a heavy coating of fresh rosemary and thyme, black pepper, and gray sea salt. Carved to order and doled out in hulking $26 portions, each slab is rosy and medium-rare throughout, weeping jus into a mess of pickled onions. It needs no sauce, though a dunk in Mr. Donahue’s peppercorn gravy or melted, horseradish-spiked “cowboy butter” certainly won’t hurt.
Crunchy chicken-fried pork cheeks are another meaty win; they’re lovely when drizzled with a honey-and-mustard-seed sauce during dinner hours and even better at lunchtime, when the chefs stack the craggy breaded cutlets onto sesame seed buns with mayo and hot pickled peppers. Mr. Donahue’s also hard-sears minute steaks for $20, but you should really only order them if the roast beef, which is offered as a perpetual nightly “special,” has somehow run out.
The plentiful side dishes run $7 each or $19 for three, and none feel like afterthoughts. Less virtuous dieters should opt for the fried onions (ranch sauce included), luscious mashed-then-baked duchess potatoes, or crab imperial, a mayo-heavy seafood spread kissed with hot sauce and destined not for fancy toast, but saltines. From this kitchen, even “healthier” alternatives wow; try the squat pattypan squash, which goes full-parmigiana, or the sungold tomatoes with lemon-basil vinaigrette and oozy stracciatella cheese.
Mr. Donahue’s bargain desserts ($5–$7) are less consistent than its meals. With any luck, you won’t encounter the same batch of disappointingly grainy vanilla gelato that plagued my root beer float one night. Instead, choose the towering strawberry cake, the dessert menu’s saving grace. Somehow dense and fluffy all at once, the brick of cream cheese poundcake is barely visible under a spiral of whipped cream and a deluge of fresh strawberry sauce. It’s a dessert as timeless as the restaurant in which it’s served.
203 Mott Street, 646-850-9480