18 September 2008

How Are Neighborhood Landmarks Made?



Many of the shops and restaurants I write about on this blog have been around so long that I and everyone else take them for granted. The Old Town Bar, for instance, has always been there, has always looked like that, etc. But each one of these icons was once a humble, unassuming place not unlike many another business. When Old Town Bar opened, there were a lot of bars that looked like it, served similar food and drink, and attracted a similar clientele. Only its longevity and the disappearance of those competitors have made it special. (Well, that, and the fact that it's just damned great.)

Because things move much more rapidly in New York these days, and businesses stay around for only 20 years at best, it's hard to find contemporary examples of this phenomenon. But they exist. Once such restaurant that, in my opinion, slowly and quietly made the transition from mundane to mainstay is Cucina di Pesce, the basement-level Italian joint on W. 4th Street in the East Village.

I don't know how old Cucica di Pesce is, but it's been there at last two decades, because it was packing them in in 1988, when I lived in the East Village. I assume it opened a few years prior to that. Back then, there were plenty of poor, struggling young folks who lived in the area, and they flocked for the cheap prices and free pre-dinner mussels. (Those mussels often constituted my dinner.) In the years since, I've gone less often, but I regularly have occasion to walk past the eatery and it is always buzzing. It's trade has never fallen off, as far as I can see—maybe because the prices are still good and the mussels are still free.

Every now and then, they slap a new coat of paint on the walls, but the restaurant has nonetheless developed a faded charm. It feels old. The walk-down basement set-up is a classic, very Villagey set-up. The dining space feels, looks and smells like a million candles have been burned over the years. One expects there's an old lady stirring a pot of sauce in the back. The dishes they serve are somewhat old hat. As Italian food has become innovative and trendy, Cucina has stuck by it's somewhat staid, but still very good bill of fare.

Cucina found a formula that worked, stayed with it, didn't draw a lot of attention to itself, never asked to the the Next Big Thing, and kept on keepin' on. It never committed suicide by trying to expand too quickly and become a mini-chain with branches across Manhattan. And that's how you become a neighborhood landmark. I'd say that in ten years, it would be one of the places I review in my Eater column "Who Goes There?" except that I know who goes there. I always have.

3 comments:

becomingbrooklyn said...

"Cucina found a formula that worked, stayed with it, didn't draw a lot of attention to itself, never asked to the the Next Big Thing, and kept on keepin' on. It never committed suicide by trying to expand too quickly and become a mini-chain with branches across Manhattan. And that's how you become a neighborhood landmark."

They also got really lucky, unlike the other 99 restaurants that try this formula. I'm not disagreeing that these things help make a landmark, but it's not exactly a surefire recipe for success.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

True, true, BecomingBrooklyn. They were lucky. Other things that account for their success that I might point to is their fortunate address. E. 4th Street has always been fairly attractive, populated by theatres and such. Also, that fish-shaped sign is a lure all its own. And the sidewalk cafe is very fetching.

Carol Gardens said...

Are they still cash only? I always figured that had something to do with their continued existence. (I could be wrong but I recall that from when I was a broke student and ate there often.)