An Ode to Fedora, Ziggy Piggy, and Restaurant Off-Hours

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Editor's note: This essay is part of an occasional series on New York food businesses and the impact they leave on our lives. Have a story of your own? Share it with us at nyeditor@seriouseats.com. — MF

Each time I go to Fedora, the weather is terrible.

I take it for granted, now, as part of the experience. On my first-ever visit, within a month of their opening: A blizzard. Slow plump snowflakes when we came in, 10 inches on the ground when we left. A few weeks ago: Summer thunderstorms, enough to drench me through despite an umbrella.

I've never arrived composed. It's always the sense of escaping, into somewhere calmer, sheltered, snug. It's an excuse to stay longer than I'd intend, which at a place like Fedora is not a bad thing at all.

I was charmed on my first visit: by the low-lit space that exudes history from its warm wood, by our genial bartender-server, by the egg in a hole with tripe ragout. (Yes, I find tripe charming.)

But I was charmed more than anything by an older gentlemen who lumbered down the stairs round about 11 p.m., brushed the snow from his cap, and settled in at the bar with a Fernet, neat—and a worn copy of The Iliad. With loud groups of twenty-somethings still crowding the bar, taking the blizzard as an excuse for another round or three, he seemed more than a little out of place.

"Fedora was my wife's godmother," he told the bartender. "My wife used to come here every Sunday when she was a girl. I've been coming here for more years than I can count." The original Fedora, a landmark Italian restaurant named for its proprietor, had closed its doors the year before; West Village restaurateur Gabe Stulman took over the below-ground space and the name as well.

The bartender shook his hand. Drinks were poured in Fedora's honor, as if to say: You still have a home here. Bring your book. As you were.

Chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly

Chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Another visit: a thunderstorm, this time, not a blizzard. I walked in flustered and wind-battered and, well: I'd had a day.

"You're looking for someone," the bartender offered, noting my nervous glances around the space.

"Well, yes."

"He'll show up. Have a drink while you wait?"

At other places, that would have felt like an imposition. At Fedora, it felt like a welcome.

"You look like you've had a day," was the comment as he poured a large, probably larger than merited, glass of chilled rosé. It had been. It was near midnight on a Tuesday, and bartender Gabe, who'd quickly introduced himself, had little to do other than wipe down bottles and chat. He listened sympathetically: the roommate who had cut and run, the work troubles, the romantic travails.

My date strode in, a little buzzed off a long shift behind the bar and whatever he'd imbibed while he was there. There was an empty stool next to me, he settled in. "This is Gabe." Gabe stuck out his hand. "Are you one of the new roommate candidates?"

Far too probing a question for a fourth-or-so date-or-something, but what are chatty bartenders for if not to move your night along?

A round of cocktails, and after we'd inquired after their two rosés, finding ourselves with a glass of each, and why not a bottle of the first one, and eventually two whiskeys as well. "And the cheddar poppers? And the pork sandwich. And the Brussels sprouts. And... hmm."

"Sweetbreads?" Gabe ventured.

"Sweetbreads."

The cheddar poppers would have been enough. The pork sandwich, sized such that each half required two hands, would have been more than enough, even if its layers weren't laced with lardo. There were shoestring fries. Irresistible sprouts. And how could one resist delicately fried sweetbreads? It would be like saying no to oysters. (There might also have been oysters.) I'd thought I'd had no appetite, but hadn't let go of the pork sandwich until just crumbs remained.

Gabe watched us appreciatively. "You two are doing well for a midnight snack."

He walked over to the back bar and brought down a golden pig, a trophy; I'd never noticed it before. "Ziggy Piggy," it read, "Champions of Dining."

He set it down in front of us. "This is Ziggy, who's awarded only to our very best eaters. Congratulations."

Laughter, the requisite iPhone photos, Ziggy held up in pride. "We don't give this out every night. Only to the truly deserving." A story was divulged: it involved one of Fedora's regulars absconding with Ziggy and then, in the light of sobriety, returning her with chagrin and with five tiny, similarly styled piglets—at least, that's what registered in my mind after cocktails and whiskey and something nearing a bottle of rosé. But at that point, I wasn't listening too carefully, content in a daze of pork and drink. Gluttony was a routine part of my life as a food writer, but I'd never had it validated like this before. It seemed right; there's hardly a finer place for distinguished eaters to make a meal.

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[Photograph: Carey Jones]

We did have a handicap, there so late, our enthusiasm so outsized; and we may have been trying to buy Gabe shots at that point, plying him with liquor, though we didn't know there was a Ziggy to make a play for.

But I'm pleased to have won Ziggy sometime around last call on a Tuesday. I enjoy off hours. I love the slanted afternoon light falling through the window of a bar just as they open, freshly cut lime wedges glistening, bottles rubbed clean, a stage set for action. I love the latest of late nights, as crowds thin and couples stagger off into the night and, if you've struck up a rapport with the bartender, you may get the silent nod to hang out a bit longer. Late nights are the time to tug at a restaurant a bit to see if there's any soul there.

It's in peak hours that the success of a restaurant may be won or lost, but it's in the off hours that the true character comes out—like the sigh of relief once the guests have left the party, a glass of wine in quiet contentment, dishes in the sink but we'll get to that later. My favorite restaurants are often those that I don't want to share. It's a common New York affliction, a paradox of the food world, that the best restaurants and bars become less attractive by virtue of their popularity.

No, the details are in the people; and the people are more accessible when they're not six tickets deep. I like Fedora's quirks, I suppose, because I like quirks. I like that Brian Bartels's cocktail names are so absurd as to be likable: "Watching Westerns With My Baby"; "Feel Feel Feel Feel... Feel My Heat." Names so absurd as not to feel like someone else's joke, but as to feel like a joke you're in on. I like that there's an egg-in-a-hole topped with tripe. I like that there's always a drink named Quinn: Where The Wild Quinns Are, Quinneth Paltrow, Quinn Peaks. I like how eagerly an old man reading The Iliad is embraced. I like that Ziggy exists.

I like that my impressions of Fedora are never quite firm, always somewhat dreamlike, always, "How did we manage to walk home in that blizzard?" or, "Was that who was sitting at the table behind us?" or, "... I used to know who Quinn was but now I couldn't tell you."

All the more reason to return.

About the author: Carey Jones is the former managing editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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