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.
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 mementoZack 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 closedprivate 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.
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.
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 expectit 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.
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.