10 September 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Lexington Candy Shop?"

If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd go to Lexington Candy Shop three times a weeks. As it is, I live about an hour's subway ride away. But still, I'm glad it's there, and that there is still a living yardstick in the city for how shakes, malteds, Cokes, lime rickeys and million other soda fountain staples are supposed to taste.

Here's my Eater "Who Goes There?" column:

Who Goes There? Lexington Candy Shop
I got to thinking about the Lexington Candy Shop after I heard recently that its longtime neighbor, Lascoff Drugs, had closed over the summer. The two businesses had operated a block apart on Lexington in the lowers 80s for 87 years — Lascoff was founded in 1899, Lexington Candy Shop in 1925. The drug store's death made me want to hop the 6 train to make sure the old luncheonette was doing OK.
The place was as I remembered it, a classic New York soda fountain frozen in the 1940s; a shotgun diner with a long counter lined with stools and a L-shaped row of cozy booths, the formica tables sometimes separated by wooden partitions or metal coat racks. The menu was spelled out in white plastic letters behind glass at the top of the wall behind the counter. The walls were covered with old framed menus and shots from films and ads that had used the candy shop as a backdrop ("Three Days of the Condor," "The Nanny Diaries"). The waitresses were dressed in pink blouses, and third-generation owner John Philis was dressed humbly in a white jacket and apron. Philis is always there, as far as I can tell. With his kind, doughy face, full head of graying hair and slightly world-weary expression, he looks like a soda fountain owner from central casting. He's a comforting presence.
Lexington Candy Shop was started by John's grandfather Soterios and Tami Naskos. Soterios' son Peter joined in 1930. In 1990, John entered into a partnership with Bob Karcher. Though it serves the sort of diner food you'd expect, the owners fuss over its quality and authenticity and want to make sure you know it. The menu tells you all the juices are fresh squeezed daily; the chicken and egg and other salads are homemade every morning; the ice cream has been brought in from the same age-old Philadelphia maker, Bassetts, for decades; the bread come from nearby Orwasher's Bakery, which is older than the luncheonette; the Cokes are made with seltzer and a real shot of pumped cola syrup; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the malteds are made the old-fashioned way, with real malted milk powder (out of a malted milk dispenser). They are whipped up for a good long time in a vintage 1940 Hamilton Beach mixer and brought to your table in the metal tin. The contents of the tin easily fill your glass at least three times. If you want an idea of how New Yorkers used to eat 60 years ago, this isn't a bad place to start.
Though I have heard that the place swarms with privileged UES parents and their progeny on the weekends, on a weekday it seemed to act as a port in a storm for the neighborhood's less well-heeled. At both breakfast and lunch, several solitary old men parked themselves at the counter for a leisurely meal, and read the paper or chatted with the staff. Some came in just to try their luck at Lotto. The same sort of men probably patronized the joint back in the 1940s. They were evident regulars. One fellow I saw was there at both breakfast and lunch (as I was). Maybe he never left. At lunch, local businessmen talked shop over sandwiches, and an elderly couple tottered in. The youngest patrons were a Belgian couple who posed for pictures with the waitress. (The restaurant closes at 7 p.m., so it doesn't have much or a dinner crowd.)
"We get people from the local area," that waitress told me, "and tourists from all over the world. And our local 'celebrities' come in. People who came here in high school with their parents now come in with their kids."
Oh, any candy? Yes, they sell candy. It's the kind you can buy most anywhere, Lifesavers and such. Ironically, candy is probably the least important thing about the Lexington Candy Shop. 
—Brooks of Sheffield


upstate johnny g said...

Nice report, Brooks! I LOVE the Lexington Candy Shop--a true gem. Let the bamboozled ooh and ahh over the collection of oversized mall kiosks that have taken over Times Square. Lexington Candy is the real deal. Yeah, I've been there on Saturday afternoons in the summer and it can be packed with customers, but even then the experience is worth having, because the food is good, service doesn't falter, and when it's crowded you get a sense of what NYC used to be like when places like this were as common as Chase Bank branches and Duane Reade! Glad to hear it's still in family hands. May it always be so!

Carol Gardens said...

This is where Mariel Hemingway drinks her ice cream soda and looks so sad and pretty in Woody Allen's MANHATTAN.