Odessa's French Toast Forever
I don't remember exactly when I ate at Odessa (the restaurant) for the first time—it was in 2005 or 6, in a boozy haze, probably around the same time that a college friend was bartending at Odessa (the bar) next door, specializing in a variation of a Long Island Iced Tea with an unprintable name (okay, we'll print it—scroll down). Given that the diner was open 24 hours and physically adjacent to the (extremely divey) bar, it attracted a steady trickle of late-night revelers looking for something to sop up the booze in their bellies.
I do remember that Odessa (the restaurant) made an excellent French toast, using fluffy challah bread so thoroughly soaked in eggy goo that it became almost like a caramelized bread pudding when it hit the flattop. Unfortunately, I almost only ate at Odessa (the restaurant) after a night at Odessa (the bar), so I couldn't be sure whether to trust my tastebuds in their compromised state. And given that I rarely crave French toast when I'm sober, I wasn't sure how I would ever really find out.
But I did find out a few years later, when a job with the farmers market had me out at Tompkins Square Park at 5 a.m. every Saturday in January, in the dark, freezing my ass off outside while the die-hard partiers and crust punks wobbled down Avenue A. Odessa was right across the street, and I've never been more grateful for a 24-hour diner in my life. I didn't have time for a sit-down meal, but I'd order food to go and huddle inside the vestibule for ten minutes at a time, watching an entirely different side of the city—the side that gets up before the sun, arranging bodega bouquets and salting sidewalks—spring into gear.
I only ordered French toast once during this period, but, it was just as good as my drunk palate remembered: a burnished, buttery outside sear and a soft, custardy interior. I vowed that when my infrequent French toast cravings hit, I would only sate them at Odessa.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012, when rumors started swirling that Odessa would be closing imminently (follow EV Grieve's thorough account here), sending longtime customers and guardians of Old New York into a tizzy. Things progressed slowly, but hit a fever pitch (for me, at least) around the fall of 2013, when the bar closed and moved in to the restaurant, which seemed imperiled, too. It was at this point that I demanded to Max and Robyn, who were in the midst of an East Village Eastern European food crawl, that we pay a visit to Odessa, perhaps for the last time.
Max has written about the Reuben and the blintzes we ate that night, but I barely remember them. Nor did I pay much attention to the slightly surreal scene at the back of the restaurant, which had been transformed, via dinky Christmas lights and a liquor cabinet, into a sad approximation of what the bar next door had once been. (Max tried ordering me the Whore Island Iced Tea of my past—yes that was its name—to no avail.)
As Max and Robyn can attest, the only thing I cared about that night was the French toast. It's true that Odessa doesn't have real maple syrup to serve with their French toast (what kind of self-respecting 24-hour diner does?), is lit in harsh fluorescents, and the woman behind us spent most her dinner staring at me, unblinking, while methodically shoveling stuffed cabbage into her mouth ("That's you 40 years from now," joked Max (at least I think it was a joke)).
None of that matters. What matters is that Odessa's French toast is still as good as it was the first time that I barely remember it, and even in the midst of all that's changing, it remains the same, 24 hours a day.