Food by VICE

Welcome to Neo New York, Where Everything Feels Old School but Isn't

From retro slice shops to the Safdie Brothers, the greatest city in the world is becoming homesick for itself.

by Emilie Friedlander
Feb 13 2020, 6:49pm

Image via Shutterstock

In the small East Coast city where I’ve been living on-and-off for the past year, there’s a lunch spot I like to visit whenever I'm feeling homesick. It's a combined Jewish and Italian deli that almost feels like it was expressly designed with New York ex-pats in mind, with impossibly large subs stuffed with provolone and mortadella, whitefish shipped daily from Acme in Brooklyn, and coolers stocked with Dr. Brown’s divisively vegetable-flavored Cel-Ray Soda.

It feels more like an on-the-nose celebration of classic New York flavors than the real thing, but it’s the only place in town that offers anything close to the food I associate with coming of age in New York. And on days when I’m feeling a little worn down by the world, it always manages to bring back comforting memories: slurping salty matzo ball soup at the original Second Avenue Deli in the East Village, where my late grandmother, in her 80s, went on a date with the rabbi who blessed the food; that stretch in my early twenties when the best lunch I could afford in Williamsburg was at Graham Avenue Meats & Deli, where the Godfather subs were large enough to save for dinner as well.

The ironic thing about this kind of New York-inspired restaurant is that it’s exporting an experience that, lately, feels hard to locate in the city itself. The Second Avenue Deli location my family had been frequenting for three generations shuttered in 2006, following a lease dispute with its landlord; in 2014, Graham Avenue Meats & Deli quietly stopped opening for business one day, despite the fact that it seemed to be a cult favorite among the artists and musicians spilling into the neighborhood. It’s hard to avoid headlines lamenting the demise of some New York institution or another these days (diners, dollar slice shops, Jewish delis, Manhattan bodegas), but over the past few years, I’ve been noticing a new kind of New York establishment dotting the sidewalks, not unlike the one in the town where I reside: meticulously detailed recreations of classic New York eateries, sometimes arising in the same areas where their old-timey analogues are being displaced by gentrification. It’s as though the city has suddenly become homesick for itself.

I probably first noticed this particularly Instagram-friendly form of nostalgia in 2016, when Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing opened up on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The name immediately struck me as a knowing wink at the subset of young people in the area familiar with that indigenous New York Jewish tradition (shops selling the sorts of chilled fish and dairy products and one might presumably schmear on a New York bagel). And the interior of the place did, too, from the subway tile walls, to the hand-painted "chopped liver" and "sable" signs, to the "Wall of Fame" full of framed celebrity autographs. When I learned that the place had been opened by two native New Yorkers around my age, brothers with ties to the music industry, I felt a pang of recognition: Here were people who loved this city as much as I did. And they weren’t just carrying on a classic culinary tradition, inspired by the Barney Greengrasses and Murray’s Sturgeon Shops of their youth. They were selling an experience, an almost identical recreation of the look and feel of those spaces. (Over email, co-owner Zach Frankel told VICE they were also inspired by the corner delis he and his brother frequented as kids—hence the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches).

Lately, on trips back to the city, I’ve taken to calling this experience Neo New York—a catch-all descriptor for cultural products that hinge on a near-perfect evocation of a New York that can sometimes seem like it no longer exists, although in truth it hasn’t entirely disappeared. Typically, these spots offer subtly refined takes on classic street food and casual dining fare, bolstered by decorative in-jokes that lend themselves to sharing on social media—or at least signal to the customer that they’ve arrived at a destination for people who share their complicated sadness about gentrification.

Sometimes the media enthusiasm around these places, while perfectly understandable, can seem to fly in the face of observable reality—such as the fact that despite the recent proliferation of nostalgic slice shops like F&F Pizzeria, Upside Pizza, and Norm’s Pizza, the city is still home to hundreds of pizza shops, many of them very good. In regards to this phenomenon, The New Yorker announced the dawn of a "New York Slice Renaissance" late last year, duly noting that the latter two establishments, opened by the team behind dollar-slice mainstay 2 Bros., boast "pizza that comes on red-and-white checked wax paper." Upside’s website advertises an experience “inspired by growing up in NYC in the 90s, when nothing mattered more than sports, hip-hop, and great pizza”—but also, interestingly, “responsibly sourced produce." F&F Pizzeria, which opened in late September, brings together the folks behind celebrated neighborhood Tuscan restaurant Frankies Spuntino and two James Beard Award-winning culinary greats.

Soon, I started noticing this fantasy simulacrum of old New York everywhere. The effect can be a bit uncanny: Across from Scarr’s Pizza on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side—another spot mentioned in the New Yorker piece, complete with dark wood-paneling, laminate surfaces galore, and a Do The Right Thing Poster—you might do a double-take when you see the Italian flag in the window of Regina’s Grocery. At first glance, it looks just like an old Williamsburg pork store, lined with tins of imported tomatoes, bottled sardines, and even an old-timey Italian remedy for stomach upset (Galeffi Effervescente). In truth, it’s a sandwich shop inspired by that tradition—with a few decorative touches that tip the scale in the direction of knowing kitsch, including an autographed Sopranos poster and a mysterious framed letter written by somebody looking to conduct "joint business" with the Mafia. Roman Grandinetti, the marketing professional and DJ who founded it with his mother, is also part of the team behind Mulberry Street’s Manero’s Pizza, another Neo New York establishment, which opened last August. (Grandinetti worked with VICE on a branded activation in 2013.)

With its orange booths, black-and-white checkered floor, and old school fountain bubbling with nameless "red" and "orange" drink, Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint—a spin-off of the beloved sit-down restaurant by the same name—looks in every possible way like the one I grew up going to in the 90s. Even the garbage cans look the same, though Paulie Gee’s also happens to sell craft beer. Bernie’s Restaurant, an American comfort food joint opened by Frankel’s Zach Frankel and Taylor McEwan, boasts decor so painstakingly well-chosen that one writer compared it to a "set for a TV show about a restaurant in 1983." According to the owners, its hanging Tiffany lamps, deep red booths, and red-checkered tablecloths are intended as a tribute to places like Ear Inn, Fanelli’s cafe, and the original TGI Friday’s in Manhattan; to complete the illusion that we’ve returned to our childhoods, there’s even a decorative mirror in the shape of the New York skyline (Twin Towers and all) and butcher paper with crayons for doodling.

That invocation of youth speaks to an impulse these eateries are tapping into—starting with the food itself, which typically indulges our escapist yearning for greasy childhood favorites (think: the humorously corn-dog-sized mozzarella sticks on sale at Bernie’s). Not surprisingly, many of the people behind them—including the Frankel brothers, Scarr’s own Scarr Pimentel, and Grandinetti from Regina’s Grocery and Manero’s Pizza, and 2 Bros.’ Eli and Oren Halali—are also millennial and young Gen X New York natives, folks I can only imagine are all too familiar with the slow heartbreak that comes from noticing the haunts you used to visit with your parents and grandparents disappear one by one. But according to Zach Frankel, Frankel’s is less about mourning something that is lost than maintaining a line of continuity between the present and the past. “Growing up in New York and never leaving, it’s tough to say how much the city has changed,” he told me via email. “It's grown and evolved and become something else, but it still mostly feels the same to me.” He continued: “It isn’t so much that we’re trying to save a cuisine or idea, but rather just keep it going.”

While it can be hard to pinpoint the exact decade these restaurants are transporting us to—the 70s? The 90s?—it’s safe to say that they’re all harking back to a time before the internet, a remembered New York more firmly rooted in physical space and localized specificity than the one its young creative class presently inhabits, with its endless succession of Uber rides, Seamless deliveries, and Google Hangout dial-ins. Soaking in the faded baseball memorabilia and old Coca-Cola signage that invariably makes a cameo at these spots, I’m reminded of the time Luc Sante, in Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, described nostalgia as "a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future, in concert with a yearning for order, constancy, safety, and community—qualities that were last enjoyed in childhood and are retroactively imagined as gracing the whole of the time before one’s birth."

That longing for the past isn’t limited to food. Back in August, The New York Times highlighted the current vogue for New York-specific "vernacular style," from vintage shops hawking promotional T-shirts for long-defunct local businesses to streetwear brands doing limited collaborations with classic Chinatown restaurants and old-school magazine shops. (The mid-10s vogue for Seinfeld-throwback threads, sometimes confused with normcore, is probably another example of this.) Documentary filmmaker Nicholas Heller, the city’s self-proclaimed "unofficial talent scout," has racked up hundreds of thousands of followers on his Instagram capturing unforgettable New York characters and mom-and-pop businesses. With last year’s Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers, also New York natives, harnessed that anthropological sensibility as a fiction filmmaking approach, shadowing real-life jewelers in the Diamond District for research and even casting some of them in the movie. Set in 2012—right around the time the Internet and changing millennial tastes arguably began accelerating the industry’s decades-long decline—it’s probably Neo New York’s most noticeable foray into pop culture; and like all the brothers’ films, it feels like it’s trying to keep the memory of something alive.

In many ways, Neo New York is a good thing for the city: As condos and WeWorks and chain restaurants render some neighborhoods increasingly indistinguishable from any other American Metropolitan area, there’s something moving about a crop of young artists and entrepreneurs working to preserve a slice of lived personal and cultural history. “People always love nostalgia, but in the food world, people are always concerned about what the next 'thing' is,” Bernie’s co-founder Taylor McEwan told me over email. “Sometimes in order to do that, you need to take a look back.”

At best, the Neo New York paradigm can offer a jumping-off point for chefs looking to iterate upon that history in a deeply idiosyncratic way. Here, I’m thinking of the mozzarella sticks and ultra-tangy, mountainous Caesar salads at Bernie’s—but also of Chinatown’s Golden Diner, where Momofuku Ko alum Samuel Yoo subtly re-imagines classic New York diner staples with unexpected ingredients and flourishes from Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cooking. And it can be harnessed to breathe new life into existing institutions, such as the kitschy old-timey-signage enveloping Di Fara’s pizza stall at the N3 Food Hall in Williamsburg (new, but made to look like the exterior of the Midwood original, which underwent a temporary closure last year for non-payment of taxes). At they very least, these restaurants offer a refreshing departure from the generic aspirational decor that has become ubiquitous at "hip" urban eateries (pastel colors, botanical wallpaper, hanging plants)—and a creative response to the notion that for any restaurant to become popular among millennials, it has to be compulsively photographable.

But as much as I feel at home at these places, the phenomenon itself makes me a little sad. It’s a reminder that creating a successful business in this city seems like it’s become increasingly dependent on catering to a specific kind of clientele, one that probably views these shops and restaurants as just another flauntable "experience." Or maybe they're the kind of New Yorkers who like to complain about gentrification endlessly—speaking of it as an abstract force that others are responsible for but not them, or else copping to that complicity as something unavoidable, "bc late capitalism" or they like "nice things." There’s a subtle class distinction at play: The interiors are often a little too pristine at these restaurants, and the food a little too concerned with transparent sourcing and conspicuous retro-ness, to be genuinely confused with their old-school referents.

That’s my theory about why my dad has been visiting the same diner for the past 30 years, even though he knows the food is nothing special: He always runs into his friends there, and he likes the nothing-specialness because he knows it keeps the yuppies out.

Which brings me to one of the greatest ironies about New Neo York: Though its appeal speaks to a shared despair over the loss of the spaces that make New York feel like New York, plenty of those places still exist. The pizza joint I went to as a kid is still standing, the Second Avenue Deli is still churning out great pastrami on rye (now from its new location on 33rd street), and last I checked, Fannelli’s still makes one of my favorite green salads in the city. You just have to make a bit of an effort to seek them out. And though individual consumer choice is by no means enough to offset the larger structural forces threatening these establishments—rising rents and labor costs, the proliferation of chain restaurants, and a city that offers few protections for these unofficial landmarks—I’m sure the creators of these Neo New York establishments, many of them small business owners themselves, would be thrilled to learn that their love for them was contagious enough to encourage you to do so too.

There may come a day when the simulation is all we have, but until that happens, I can’t think of a better reason to get off the internet and go outside.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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Pizza
New York
sandwiches
GENTRIFICATION
delis