Following in the footsteps of Liz Lemon, Jerry Seinfeld and Louie CK, Catherine McGregor eats at the iconic food vendors of New York television comedy.
The Seinfeld Diner
Finding out that Seinfeld was shot in Los Angeles sits high in my personal pantheon of television letdowns, right behind Alicia and Kalinda’s faked farewell scene in The Good Wife and the lack of anyone actually being eaten alive in the anaconda stunt special Eaten Alive. Between Seinfeld‘s live studio audiences and ersatz “Manhattan street” sets, the only slivers of real New York that make it on screen are the quick establishing shots of apartment buildings, shops and restaurants. The exterior of Monk’s Cafe, the coffee shop where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer hang out, is the real-life Tom’s Restaurant, a 1940s-era diner in the the Upper West Side neighbourhood of Morningside Heights.
On a gorgeous late-summer day I visited Tom’s with Kiwi journalist Eloise Gibson, who attends the Columbia Journalism School nearby and lives with her family in an apartment across the road. She told me she’d heard the food was “less than magical”, but I wasn’t deterred. We’d sit in a booth. She’d have a Big Salad and I’d have soup (which, as everyone knows, isn’t really a meal), followed by muffins (tops only, natch) and bottomless cups of coffee.
It didn’t quite work out that way. We couldn’t get a seat inside, though as Tom’s looks nothing like Monk’s Cafe (this trailer for a documentary on the real Tom’s gives you an idea of the layout), it hardly mattered. After touring the large collection of Seinfeld memorabilia, and the smaller selection dedicated to Suzanne Vega – the restaurant’s other claim to fame is as the inspiration for “Tom’s Diner” – we retired to a table outside, beneath that famous signage.
Eloise ordered an omelette, a sufficiently Seinfeldian dish, and I had an excellent burger nestled against a pile of anaemic fries. We both drank coffee, not litigiously hot. Every few minutes a tourist would appear in front of us, snap a photo, and move on.
It’s only a frontage, I know, and with the outdoor seating it doesn’t even look the same as in the show. But I’d look up and there it was, one of the most recognisable signs in television comedy. And that’s gold, Jerry! Gold!
New York realness: 6/10
The Brooklyn Nine-Nine Pizza
Like Seinfeld, Friends and How I Met Your Mother before it, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a quintessentially New York television comedy shot entirely on sound stages in Los Angeles. With no actual locations to investigate, I’d have to make do. In season one’s “Sal’s Pizza”, Jake and Boyle investigate an arson attack on the neighborhood’s 8th best pizzeria (“7th for mouth-feel”). A Sal’s Pizza it was.
But which one? The pizza world is swarming with Sal’s, from Fat Sal’s in Hell’s Kitchen to Original Sal’s in Queens. There’s a good reason why New Zealand’s own Sal’s Pizza chose the name – it signifies “Noo Yawk” in the same way as yellow taxis and policemen eating doughnuts (actually a thing). I settled on Sal’s Pizzeria in Cobble Hill, not too far from the real Brooklyn police station that makes cameo appearances in Brooklyn Nine-Nine establishing shots.
Sal’s is old school all the way. It’s dingy even at midday, the walls covered in photos and newspaper clippings that aren’t much younger than the restaurant itself, which opened in 1957. Sal’s is so stuck in the past they had to call in Gordon Ramsay, who devoted a 2012 episode of Kitchen Nightmares to Sal’s and it’s adjoining sister restaurant, Mama Maria’s.
The pizza? I’m no expert, but it was pretty good. I ordered the Grandma slice, a uniquely New York pizza variety with a thick focaccia-like base, baked in a square pan. A bit chewy, a lot cheesy, it’s about as far from the food made by my actual grandmother – sweaty gammon ham with an accompaniment of floppy grey-green vegetables – as it’s possible to get. Like Madonna’s t-shirt says, Italians do it better.
New York realness: 1/10 (but only because the Brooklyn Nine-Nine Sal’s doesn’t actually, y’know, exist)
30 Rock Hot Dogs
30 Rock‘s deepest, most fulfilling relationship? That’s Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy, no contest. But a close second is Liz and her abiding love for junk food of all kinds. Her culinary passions are mostly cheese-adjacent, like her beloved “night cheese”, or off-brand Mexican cheese snacks Sabor de Soledad (“Flavor of Loneliness”), or the truly gross Cheesy Blasters (“you take a hotdog, stuff it with Jack cheese, and fold it in a pizza…”).
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in her heart for sandwiches and doughnuts and hot dogs. The latter feature in the very first episode, when Liz buys a stand’s entire stock to get back at line-jumpers, and they’re the edible accompaniment to tons of outdoor walk-and-talks with Jack and Jenna. She even ends up marrying a (gourmet, organic) hot dog vendor, the dopey but perfect Criss Chros.
There are no hot dog stands on the plaza in front of 30 Rock. Perhaps the powers that be decided they would detract from one of New York’s greatest buildings, the longtime home of NBC Television. 30 Rockefeller Plaza is all mid-century class, from the ocean liner-shaped Top of the Rock observation deck on the 70th storey to the magnificent lobby murals on the ground floor. This is a place for eating $200 meals of lobster potpie and Dover sole, not “the face, feet and colon of a pig” (thanks, Criss) stuffed in a 5c bun.
But around the back of the building, at the Avenue of the Americas entrance, there are hot dog stands galore. They cater largely to the tourists that throng this strip of Midtown, and all are run by hot dog mega-corp Sabrett (“The frankfurter New Yorkers relish”). These are what are known as “dirty water dogs”, a reference to the days-old bacteria bath in which the frankfurters sit waiting for the grill. Unlike Chicago hot dogs, which are smothered in tomato slices, peppers and pickles, New York hot dogs are simple, refined: sausage, mustard and (optional) sauerkraut and onion sauce. That’s it.
What is there to say about my Sabrett hot dog? The best I can offer is it tasted like food and I wasn’t as hungry after eating it as I was before. Job done.
On my way home, a treat. I stopped by Peter Pan’s in Greenpoint, Tina Fey’s favourite doughnut joint:
“The best doughnut? That’s Peter Pan doughnuts in Brooklyn. It’s a Polish bakery. We shot nearby once for 30 Rock. It’s a white-cream-filled powdered doughnut. And I really believe, when I first tried it, if I had a penis, I would put it in this doughnut. I finally understand what you guys are thinking about and what motivates you guys.” [Esquire]
The woman knows what she’s talking about. Just ask Larry the cat.
Food: 2/10 (hot dogs), 8/10 (doughnuts)
New York realness: 8/10
The Louie Pizza
If opening credits were fashion, Louie‘s would be normcore. Louie jogs up the subway stairs. Louie walks down the street. Louie eats a slice of pizza. Louie goes to work. Even the theme song, an edited cover version of Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie” (the “Louie, Louie you’re going to cry” line was added by producer Reggie Watts), is unflashy and functional.
The title sequence follows Louie from the West 4th St subway in Greenwich Village, along West 3rd St (“Louie, Louie, Louie lou-ahh”), and into Ben’s Pizzeria, where he demolishes a slice in record time. He’s not even tasting it, just tipping fuel down his gullet in preparation for the night ahead. He rounds the corner into Macdougal St and heads down the stairs to the Comedy Cellar. The screen goes dark. The episode begins.
Ben’s Pizzeria isn’t particularly famous or exceptional. The Slice Harvester, a blogger who spent three years touring every Manhattan pizzeria – all 435 of them – calls it “a decent slice” and scores it an OK-ish 5 out of 8 (the Harvester’s rating system is somewhat unorthodox).
But why listen to a so-called pizza expert? I love pizza and just discovered what a Grandma slice is, so I’m halfway to guruhood already. And I thought Ben’s pizza was incredible. The base is thin and crisp and tangy like sourdough. The tomato is fresh as anything, tasting of the sun. With the Tricolore green (spinach) and white (mozzarella), it’s pizza as patriotic icon, a work of Italian expressionist art. Sublime.
New York realness: 10/10
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