Food

Restaurant Review: The Loveliness of a Lunch Counter With No Fancy Ideas

Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a narrow, anachronistic lunch counter on lower Fifth Avenue, went up for sale several times over the years. Each time, its regulars reacted the way you would if an aged relative was rushed to the hospital.

This was understandable. Eisenberg’s was getting up there in years. Under one name or another, it had been frying eggs and frothing egg creams on the same site, across from the Flatiron Building, since 1928. It appeared to have almost all its original parts, and they showed their age. There was a considerable chance that any new crisis at Eisenberg’s could be its last.

A buyer always turned up just in time. Even so, the faithful worried. A new owner might change the menu, might clean up too much, might even kill the spirit of the place entirely — introducing a cocktail “program” with boozy egg creams; replacing the PB&J with razor clams; staying open at night, with votive candles flickering on the counter of green marble so dark it is almost black. Eisenberg’s was where New Yorkers went to get away from self-conscious restaurant mannerisms. The last thing anyone wanted was for the guy who had made your egg-salad sandwich to lean over and ask, “How are we enjoying the first few bites?”

Ownership was transferred again recently and none of that came to pass, I’m happy to say, even though the premises apparently got a thorough tuneup. When the lights came on again in September, a new name was stenciled on the front window: S & P. A change of that magnitude could have caused a boycott among the faithful had it not turned out that S & P is what the place was called before it was Eisenberg’s.

S & P revived the original name briefly used by the lunch counter in the 1920s.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Most of the action takes place across the counter.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

So welcome back, S & P Lunch. You look pretty good, considering.

While certain New Yorkers recall Eisenberg’s as a perfectly preserved specimen of a classic luncheonette, in truth there were aspects of the place that did not bear close examination. The galley kitchen was so compact that there wasn’t room for all the food. This led to the practice, probably unique to Eisenberg’s, of keeping a stash of bacon, fried before the breakfast rush, in a cardboard box on the floor.

The kitchen’s footprint appears larger by several square inches, with shelves to hold loaves of Pechter’s bread in wax-paper wrappers and single-serving boxes of cornflakes. The framed pictures of exquisitely obscure celebrities were packed off, along with most of the signs, like the one that read, “Welcome to the Hawaiian Room/ Your host/ Phil.”

The tables along the right wall as you enter are also gone. This is where you will stand in line if there is a wait for seats in the back room, where a wall of banquettes has materialized, in jade-green vinyl. Very fancy. To atone for that addition, perhaps, the owners kept the ratty red vinyl on the stools at the counter. Some are held together with tape. They may be in worse shape than they were before, which would be a nice touch.

The anachronistic atmosphere lives on, although many of the details are new.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

None of these alterations hurt as much as the preservationists feared. In fact, S & P Lunch manages to feel almost exactly like Eisenberg’s while being different in almost every particular. The new owners, Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross, seem to have understood that the Platonic ideal of the space transcends any individual item of décor. That ideal is unflashy, matter-of-fact and almost imperceptibly off-kilter, as epitomized by the modest new plaque in the window: “A Place to Eat Since 1928.”

All but the most rabid fans would admit that the food in the old days was not uniformly high in quality. The usual survival tactic was to find a patch of solid ground on the menu and never budge from it. For me and many others, that meant either the tuna sandwich or the tuna melt. The tuna salad that formed the mortar of each was reassuringly creamy and smooth, with no hard bits of celery or any other surprises. And it is that way again.

The menu’s New York Jewish roots are apparent in dishes like matzo ball soup.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Is it also somehow a little richer, less powdery, with an extra zing of vinegar or lemon? I believe so, but as with many things about S & P, I can’t quite swear to it.

I do know that the bread on the tuna melt — rye, of course — has improved by roughly 1,000 percent. I won’t go into what it was like before, but it now has body, flavor and a dark crust that really goes crunch when you bite down. Tuna salad is great on it. Pastrami — juicy, purplish, sliced fairly thick by hand and stacked just high enough to give the sandwich the profile of a suspension bridge — is fantastic. The S & P pastrami sandwich is better, though much smaller, than the famous one at Katz’s Delicatessen, which is not fantastic and never will be until something is done about the rye.

The pastrami is not made in-house, or at the owners’ other businesses, the Hi-Hi Room and Court Street Grocers. It is purchased from a smokehouse in Rensselaer County and given a secondary rub with pepper and mustard, then an overnight steam.

Hand-cut pastrami makes its way into several sandwiches, including a simple one with rye and mustard.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

My worst fear for S & P was that a chef would take charge and proceed on the theory that you can never have too much umami, too much spice or too much smoke. I envisioned pastrami thickly crusted with peppercorns and smoked until it tasted like the brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.

Often, being bought by a chef is deadly for old diners, luncheonettes, clam shacks, soup counters and the like. These places ought to be somewhat interchangeable. This is the thing that S & P Lunch gets absolutely right. The chef the owners installed, Dan Ross-Leutwyler, seems to devote himself to making everything slightly better — and in some cases, more than slightly — without pushing the flavors to their limits or twisting things into creative new shapes. The corned beef hash is chopped and fried in-house, but if you weren’t paying attention you might not notice, and that’s fine.

You could pick up and eat the cheeseburger (or either of two variations on it) with one hand, and by the time you’d started to wonder who baked the excellent little bun, the thing would be half gone.

The rugelach are sticky with raspberry jam and raisins.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Almost everything is served simply, with a pickle on the plate or between the bread.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

It’s reassuring to come across the split pea soup and realize it’s simply bad — bad in a normal way, not from trying too hard. The matzo ball soup is pleasant enough, but I don’t imagine many Jewish grandmothers will be asking for the recipe. The rugelach, though — soft and sticky with dried fruit and jam — will inspire envy.

Meatloaf (smooth, sweetish and faintly orange with carrots) comes between two slices of white bread, with white onions and chili sauce. I could eat it once a week and I don’t especially care for meatloaf.

Of the three or four dozen other things to eat at S & P Lunch, most are sandwiches. More are on the way, supposedly. The classic sandwiches on the menu look as simple and iconic as S & P itself. Any one of them could have served as a model for a Wayne Thiebaud painting. The salami sandwich is simply rye bread, deli mustard and a bulge of thinly sliced salami. The grilled cheese is made on excellent diner-style white bread griddled to the kind of even brown that some people spend fortunes trying to attain in a tanning booth.

The original items on the menu are easy to spot because they have funny names and are more complicated. An eventful egg-and-cheese sandwich called the Lil’ Shonda incorporates a weighty slice of pastrami, pickled green tomatoes and something called Dinkee Sauce, which seems to be mostly mustard.

Each time the space has changed hands, regulars react as if an aged relative had been rushed to the hospital.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

It’s not that simple, inexpensive lunch places don’t exist anymore. They do, but they tend to be chains, and they almost never offer the particular urban experience that you can get at S & P. There and at a few other surviving relics, you can sit down and rub elbows with strangers, ask one of them to pass the ketchup. You’re somebody, because you’re at the counter, but you’re anonymous. You can join the conversation or eavesdrop, depending on your mood. You don’t get that at Sweetgreen.

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