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Last Brunch at Shopsin's

By James Felder
December 20, 2006

Rumors started circulating in March about the possible closure of New York City's beloved Shopsin's. In July, word came that the lease was coming due. Last Sunday was the West Village institution's last day. Today, an essay on what made Shopsin's great.

11 24 06
Originally uploaded to Flickr by JulianBleeckr.

Like most fans of Shopsin’s, I was shocked on Monday morning to hear the West Village institution was closing its door for good. What added a weird postscript to it was the realization that I had eaten there on the last day of business.

My friend Amber and I used to eat brunch there every weekend. Melinda Shopsin, Kenny's daughter, and the rest of the crew didn’t know us by name but knew our faces; Kenny's son, Zack, was always ready to crack a few jokes as he brought us a banana-cinnamon smoothie. When Amber moved to Wisconsin a few years ago, we had a last brunch there, and they gave her a free Shopsin’s T-shirt as a memento—Zack happily demonstrating how the shirt could be folded so that the caricature of Kenny Shopsin’s face would form something delightfully obscene.

This holiday season, Amber is moving back to the East Coast. So I took her and her boyfriend and another friend for what we hoped was one of many regular Shopsin’s brunches to come. When we got to the door, even though there were people inside, a handwritten sign said “Closed.” This happens sometimes when they get tired of the rush, so we figured we’d come back another day. But Melinda unlocked the door, “Oh no, come in.” And as she ushered us in, another group of people started following us and she said to them, “I’m sorry, we are closed—private event.” Amber’s boyfriend almost got locked out with them before we told Melinda he was with us.

It was mellow inside. We had no idea anything was going on. Kenny was talking with some friends at a table until Melinda shooed him into the kitchen to knock out some orders. Melinda and Zack were jokey as usual.

The only out-of-the-ordinary thing was that the singer Patti Smith was sitting at a table in the center of the restaurant. Let me note that she looked positively iconic, straight out of one of those Mapplethorpe photographs, beautiful in that way only Americans can be. Like Abraham Lincoln. A beauty that comes from being sincere, honest about what life has made you, and what you make of your life.

Shopsin's Beer List
Originally uploaded to Flickr by pheezy.

The reason I mention this is that Shopsin’s was beautiful to us in that way. Over the years I’ve heard many people criticize the place. People who ate one meal there. People who never ate any meal there. “What’s this with all the rules?” they would ask. No groups larger than four, no cellphones, no ordering the same dish, etc. I had one friend who lived in the neighborhood who said she was afraid to eat there. These are people who want to go into a restaurant and order their food, and treat the wait staff like robots. To them, the kitchen is a faceless machine that turns out food. Eating is anonymous. They want to be served.

Picture 372
Originally uploaded to Flickr by jonmc.

But one did not go to Shopsin’s to be served. One went to Shopsin’s to spend time in the life that the Shopsin family was living. No bullshit. The menu (right) reflected that. It wasn’t made to give you what you expected but what you didn’t expect—it was an experience and an expression of Kenny’s imagination. Once I heard Kenny explain to a friend Shopsin’s food vs. fancy food: “I don’t like to serve food that’s better than my customers.” I assure you that was said with love and respect. [Shopsin's menu, PDF]

A story of the rules: Once Amber and I watched Melinda call the cops and have them escort out some stockbrokers who wouldn’t stop using their cellphones and who had refused to pay the bill. When the stockbrokers denied what had happened, all the customers turned around and backed up Melinda’s version. After the police escorted the stockbrokers out, Melinda came up to Amber to take her order and said, “I hope you know what you want or I’ll call the cops on you, too.” In words here, that may sound harsh, but in person, it was charming and special and sincere. Like everything at Shopsin’s, it only made sense if you were sitting in the booth and enjoying it in the moment.

Picture 375
Originally uploaded to Flickr by jonmc.

Our last brunch at Shopsin’s, not knowing it was the last, Amber had Blisters on my Sisters, a tortilla-and-egg concoction she always ordered. She likes things familiar. I had the Algiers, a sandwich new to the menu, because I liked to order different things there whenever I could. It was spicy chicken merguez sausage and perfectly moist quinoa on spinach garlic bread. Like everything at Shopsin’s, it was wonderful in unexpected ways.

James Felder is a television writer living in New York City. You can check out his photoblog at www.SnapshotArtifact.org

To talk about what Shopsin's meant to you, leave a comment below.


the drama queen in me wants to pronounce, "i shall never eat again", but i know that's not true. but will i ever eat again with such gumption?

shopsin's was a true new york original. this was obvious to everyone, even if you hated the place. but i loved it, for so many reasons, not the least of which was the food.

i would take kenny shopsin over any of new york's top chef's - the mario batali's and bobby flay's of the world. but to paraphrase a famous quote, talking about shopsin's food is like dancing about architecture. you really just have to experience it.

much has been made of shopsin's surliness, but when you felt like home there, as i did, it was no different than hanging with your family at thanksgiving, stuffing your face with delicious food and a side of kvetching.

when my ex doug and i would eat there, kenny's late wife eve, an angel who left this world and this city tragically early in 2003, seemed to take joy in our consistent ordering from the "big plates" section of the menu. i always had a ton of questions about dishes on the menu, which eve gladly entertained. she would often warn me not to get a certain dish, always remembering that i don't eat meat. it took my own family, who i dine with often, years to remember i stopped eating meat but eve always remembered and she only saw me once every few months.

doug often ordered the krakatoa, one of the aforementioned big plates. like a bailiff calling a court to order, eve would cheerfully pronounce as she approached our table with the heaping platter, "krakatoa, east of java". when i actually went to indonesia several years later, i realized that krakatoa is west of java, but i think eve knew that. the point was that food at shopsins was serious, but also a lot of fun.

after doug and i polished off our big plates and an order of kenny's famous ebelskivers ("chocolate skivies" as eve would order them), eve would compliment us on our healthy appetites and remind us to take some free candy on the way out.

somehow, eve's reminder to take some candy really mattered to me, and we would leave wondering when we would next be able to return for another heaping dose of kenny's healthy cooking and eve's approval.


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