NEW YORK’S BEST GREASY SPOON
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
Here we are, mid-holidays—the kind of days we leave the party a little too tipsy, and head to another party, and another…and then the sun comes up. Hungry, tired, hungover… Where to go?
For those evenings that melt into morning, for a sense of feeling home once more…there is La Bonbonniere, New York’s favorite greasy spoon. It’s been in its West Village locale since the 1930s and—says a loving frequenter, TV production designer Gary Konden—“it looks like it hasn’t been painted since 1961 and that might be true. Martha Stewart would have a heart attack here; this is not the health department’s favorite kind of place.”
The walls are cracked and peeling (and festooned with taped-up pages from papers—from The Village Voice to Rolling Stone—paying homage.) A pay phone, truly a relic of the past, is welded to the east wall. The red-vinyl seats are cracked. Piles of cardboard boxes surround the refrigerator. Beside the well-worn counter is a heaping tray of fruity muffins. There is a constant repartee between the workers—many who have been here decades—and the customers.
Presiding over the grill is Gus Maroulletis, 76, who, though he has been here almost 30 years and owns the place, is dressed in a spattered chef’s coat and never stops working, flipping the burgers known as the best in town and frying up a famous challah French toast.
The breakfast-all-day-long coffee shop—located on Eighth Avenue between Jane and West 12 Streets—is having a moment. It’s got over 15,000 Instagram followers and, on weekends, customers form a line down the block.
On a mid-November afternoon, tiny Marina Cortez, La Bonbonniere’s Peruvian-born, Queens-dwelling manager for 35 years, bustles around in her polka-dotted blue-knit cap as she ferries orders to customers in the street-shed plastered with signs: MARINA’S BEST RICE PUDDING! WE SELL DONUTS AND CROISSANTS! CASH ONLY! CASH ONLY!
She is hugged by the regulars, but doesn’t stop to chat. Michael Stewart, the natty white-haired owner of Tavern on Jane across the street, enters the shed for Marina’s celebrated pudding and then, after coming inside to pay, says, “It’s cold! I better get a sweater!” “No,” says one worker, Marco. “Get a whiskey.”
Along with neighborhood toilers like doormen and construction workers, “a lot of movie stars come,” Marina tells me. “Ethan Hawke. Tony Soprano—the man who play him.” The late James Gandolfini? “Yes! And Philip Seymour Hoffman before he die too. Molly Shannon. One time came Sean Penn.”
While it used to be known as the ‘Sex And The City diner’ because Sarah Jessica Parker often popped in, La Bonbonniere’s moment truly arrived in 2019 when Amy Sherman Palladino, the creator of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, happened by and chose the place as Miriam Maisel’s go-to. The block has since been crammed more than once for the retro series’ shoots.
Bonbonierre has its place in music history too. The rock group The Candy Butchers not only took its album cover photo here; they recorded their album—yes, called The Candy Butchers: Live at La Bonbonniere—here too. Filmmaker Gabriel Nussbaum has called it “my office away from my office.” For a film he finished not long ago, every meeting took place at a La Bonbonniere table. “They have the best French toast in the world,” he says.
I have lived at Jane and Eighth for decades, and the constancy of La Bonbonniere in an ever-changing neighborhood is a huge comfort. When something changes, the locals are unsettled.
For years, one man used to sit at the table right by the window all day long—sometimes alone at sunset as the workers were mopping up—his newspapers spread out on the table in front of him. Heavyset, always in glasses, a scarf and cap. “Steve!” says Marco, remembering him. “Steve? He die five years ago,” says Gus. “He come here 40 years. One day he don’t come in and they find him…”—Gus makes the universal gesture for finito—“in his apartment.”
“You know how old this place is?—90 years,” Gus continues. “A woman came in one day and said she ate here in 1932.”
Before it was a diner, it was a pastry shop—the jaunty French name (a bonbonnière is a special party favor) given by a French customer. As a diner, it had a string of owners: Spyro, Pete, and “Mr Charlie”—“who hired Paul to cook. “Remember Paul?” Gus asks. “Paul was Greek, too—smoking and making scrambled eggs and always drunk. He used to call his mother back home from the phone,” he says, pointing to the long-unused pay phone. “Crying ‘cause he missed her. Paul here 30 years.”
There are other historic greasy spoons in Manhattan, of course, and there are newer joints that aspire to spoon-dom (two favorites: The Lexington Candy Shop on the UES, which dates back to 1925 and claims the city’s best malteds, and the recently rebooted S&P in the Flatiron District).
But most regulars keep coming back to La Bonbonniere, even after they move away. Such is the case with Gary, who used to come here three or four times a week in 1993, when he was 19 and living on Horatio. Even though he now lives in Los Angeles, Gary still checks in regularly and picks up the phone to call Marina. He’s not alone. “On her birthday people call,” he says. “If you look around the room, there’s postcards and gifts and letters—and, look! A pineapple from someone who visited Hawaii.”
“There’s no other place like it,” Gary explains. “It’s a greasy spoon times a thousand and I don’t think anyone else would eat in a place this messy and trust it, but the customers not only trust it, we’re adopted by Marina.” During 9/11, Bonbonierre was open when other restaurants closed, and later, during Hurricane Sandy, when restaurants didn’t have electricity and shut down, Marina and Gus found a generator and had hot coffee for everybody. People were lined up around the block.
“What makes it special is: In your twenties you move to New York City, you don’t know who you are yet, you don’t know who your ‘people’ are, and you haven’t established where you’re going to live. But a place like this: You walk in and get a hug; you start to feel you’re part of the community. That’s what I felt: That I belonged, even in a city of eight million people. La Bonbonniere is what made me fall in love with New York.”
La Bonbonniere is located at 28 8th Ave in Manhattan and is open 7AM–4PM daily.
Hero image courtesy of @happydavid