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July 1st, 2003

A Stroll On Thompson St.

by Abbey Ehmann

From the bustle and backed up traffic of Canal Street to the verdant (okay, cement) village green (okay, grey) of Washington Square Park, runs the eight-block expanse of Thompson Street. One of Manhattan’s quieter stretches of shops, restaurants and apartment buildings and sliced in the middle by Houston Street, Thompson is half Soho hip and half Village bohemia. The neighborhood has changed considerably over the past few decades, from the gritty blocks epitomized by the gay-bashing scene in Torchsong Triology to a shopping circuit for the ladies of Sex in the City. It’s home to 35 restaurants and bars, and Gotham’s official “chess district” with the city’s two most comprehensive chess stores. It’s also the perfect place to shop if you don’t fancy contemporary fashions; there are five vintage clothing stores, almost one for every block and an accessory store that caters to the glamour puss who lives in the past. The lucky people who live on Thompson Street have no problem with excess dirty laundry, as its eight blocks boast six laundromats or dry cleaners. An afternoon spent strolling along lovely Thompson Street can usually result in a shopping bag or two. The stores are almost impossible to resist and in between the pricey boutiques there are always bargains to be found.

On a recent Sunday, I worked my way downtown, window shopping and stopping into a few of those irresistable boutiques. Stella Dallas always has a rack of mark-downs on the sidewalk that requires rifling through and a bin of scarves and ties for ten bucks. I’ve often found great stuff inside, but it takes patience to comb through the cocktail dresses and sequined sweaters. Purdy Girl had a bargain rack on the sidewalk as well, but the warm sunshine made the long-sleeved shirts look less than appealing. My man can’t pass by Generation Records without going inside and he rarely walks out not having found something he can’t live without. This afternoon was no exception.

At the corner of Bleecker, we marveled at the longevity of Red Lion and Back Fence, and the transience of what is now CVS and the Village Theatre, but was most recently the nightclub Life and, even longer ago, The Village Gate. CVS has been battling it out with Price Wise across the street, and they’re both still standing, giving shoppers the choice between a behemoth chain and a comparatively small establishment.

Further down we ventured into Random, one of my favorite tchotchke shops, and I immediately spotted an amazing handbag shaped like a watering can, complete with the little sprinkler holes. At only $19.99 it was a must-have, and I landed my first shopping bag only a half-hour into our stroll. We could’ve really racked up the charges on the hilarious curse word soaps, the Superman and Wonder Woman hand towels and a million great picture frames. You can never have enough picture frames. And I don’t know how I made it out of there without a handful of the tiny glow-in-the-dark rubber duckies.

Crossing Houston, the difference between the Village and Soho is immediately evident. The shops offer a wide variety of personalized services, like custom clothing and shoes, and more one-of-a-kind items. At the adorable new Doggy Style you can order personalized dog blankets or sterling silver ID tags. Deco Jewels features vintage rhinestone jewelry and Lucite handbags from the 50s and 60s, obviously an obsession of the proprietress. Each bag is in immaculate condition and would be a conversation starter, especially the black beaded Poodle clutch. But the prices are pretty mindblowing, so be prepared to spend a bundle if you want one of these bags. I have a few myself, but bought them at flea markets for about ten percent of what these babies cost.

The Hat Shop is another one of my favorite stops, just to see what whimsical new designs the owner has in store. The latest was a tiny thing, more a hair accessory than a hat, really, with three little yellow birds perched on top. The hats can range from somewhat expensive millinery confections to more affordable knits, and there is always someone colorful shopping there, engaging the shopkeeper in animated conversation. On this particular afternoon it was three stylishly dressed women who were just thrilled with their purchases.

I can’t make it down Thompson Street without checking Sacco, one of the few shoe stores that carries my size. They have seasonal sales that offer scandalous bargains of the “I’ll go broke if I don’t buy these” variety, but the markdowns this afternoon were slim pickins. Whew, I got out safely!

Milady’s and Omen, both at Prince Street, have been around forever, two of the few businesses that anchor the neighborhood. Other spaces seem to change every time I visit, for instance the home of the new Salon Deshyou. It’s been a few different precious, artsy shops, if I remember correctly. I sorely miss Clear Metals, an amazing jewelry store that featured a collection of talented artists. The owner, Barbara Klar, has gone digital with ClearMetals.com, but the online shopping experience leaves much to be desired. I just love to try on a ring and covet it for a while?ɂ

Another shop that’s been around for ages is Ceramica, a stalwart source for wedding or housewarming gifts. Kate Spade has also been on the block for quite some time, but the shop’s stock has changed from handbags to paper products to its current inventory, travel accessories. A stone’s throw from Kate’s and through a few lanes of tunnel traffic is an enormous building that has seen considerable changes over the past decade. When I worked at 100 Avenue of the Americas, the space housed a brewery in its upper floors and American Dream Machines at street level. There were a few other occupants, but now the building is vacant and available for rent. Oh, what I could do with all that floor space!

Things get a tad sparse below Watts, but there are a few new spots brightening up the dark blocks. Naked Lunch is a refuge for nightcrawlers and Pfiff has replaced the Ethiopian restaurant that had been on the corner of Grand since the 80s. We had a celebrity spotting at that intersection as well, eyeing Lenny Kravitz hanging out at Caf? Noir. That’s one thing that never changes: Soho is still a star magnet!

For folks driving in to shop Thompson from out of town ?ɬ or uptown ?ɬ you’re all set with two parking garages, one above Houston and the other below. Whether you start out with brunch to fortify your foraging for bargains or work up an appetite inspecting each and every shop, you can grab a slice for under three bucks or drop a serious wad of cash on a multi-course meal. There are three delis for quick snack purchases, a liquor store if you need a quick nip and the amazingly aromatic Porto Rico Coffee if you need an immediate infusion of caffeine to invigorate you. It’s a stretch that offers every imaginable amenity. If you can easily envision yourself as one of the neighborhood shopkeepers, you’re in luck. There are six storefronts for rent, all below Houston. And if you’re in the market for a townhouse, you’re really in luck! There’s a gorgeous three-story gem for sale on the corner of Grand Street. Of course, if neither is the case, you can do what the rest of us Thompson Street strollers do and take it one day at a time.

On our afternoon out, we decided to dine on the early side and chose Rocco. We stepped inside — and back in time. The tiny Italian eatery has been in business since 1922 and has the historical hexagonal tiled floor and whitewashed tin ceiling of a classic Village cafe. Even the waiter seemed straight out of central casting with an accent so thick you had to struggle to understand him. But there was no misunderstanding him when he said “Talk to me! Speak to me!” as he took our order ( he was rumored to be related to Salvidore Dali). We had his undivided attention, since the only other diners were a post-church extended family of eight who looked like they’d been there all afternoon.

The two of us went a little overboard on the appetizers, and the situation was exacerbated by the basket of crunchy bread and the healthy slab of bruschetta that had been plunked down seconds after we were seated. I went for one of the day’s many specials, fresh mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes and prosciutto. The tomatoes were the yummiest I’d ever had, soft and salty and not at all like some of the shoe leather sun dried I’ve encountered in the past. And the prosciutto was tender; I could’ve eaten a few more slices of that! My date ordered stuffed mushrooms, which were overflowing with a melange of vegetables. We shared an enormous bowl of spinach and egg drop soup, and I found myself wishing that I could get the same egg drop deliciousness delivered from my local Chinese place instead of the gloppy goo I usually receive. We could’ve quit after the appetizers!

But we’d already ordered, so we took a few breaths and tackled our main courses. I tucked into the old-timey Italiano dish of veal parmesian. I found the meat ultra thin and tender, the cheese milky and melty. The marinara was so incredibly fresh it tasted as though the chef had ground the tomatoes mere moments before the plate arrived at our table. My vegetarian date opted for penne arrabiata and was immensely pleased. His sauce was spicy, if not as spicy as he’d expected and the serving was generous. We shared my side dish of buttery carrots and zucchini and left two completely empty plates.

For dessert, I chose the admittedly un-Italian apple crunch pie with the side scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was tasty enough, but I felt as though something more traditional would’ve been superior. My date stuck with the program and ordered a cannoli, which I ordinarily avoid, given my aversion to the usual stuffing. This cannoli’s insides were far creamier and although it wouldn’t ordinarily have been a choice, I suppose I could’ve suffered through it!

We finished our meal off with coffee and cappucino and wondered if we’d receive one of those free limoncellas we read about on the back of the menu. Not that we knew what that was or even if we wanted one. We certainly could hardly have fit much more into our over-full bellies. But by the time we finished, the place had filled up and our waitstaff had their hands full, so offering freebies to keep customers lingering probably wasn’t a priority. Perhaps we’ll have to go back and make ourselves regulars.

On another night, we had reservations at Pfiff, the new-ish restaurant on Grand and Thompson. When I made the reservations, I let slip that I was visiting for review purposes, and that was a mistake. Being the anonymous diner allows me to see ?ɬ and taste ?ɬ what any other casual diner would. Being the “reviewer” not only marked me as a Very Important Diner, eliciting much attention — and free food; it put me in the position of not being able to make requests, or demands.

Upon arrival, I gave my name and we chose a table in the back near the kitchen. But when I told the waiter I was supposed to speak with Tricia, the manager, he moved us to a spacious corner table by the windows. Already the VIP treatment had begun. Tricia came over and introduced herself, telling us all about the menu and what she was aiming for cuisine-wise. Not continental, not fusion, but the menu ranges from individual pizzas to rib eye steak.

She recommended that we begin with a cocktail, so we made two selections from the drink specials menu, a Colibri, a fruity concoction, and a watermelon martini, which is nothing more than muddled watermelon and vodka. It sure tasted yummy! And so did my date’s Colibri. Sipping slowly, so as not to get immediately snockered, we surveyed the menu and were served bread with a big bowl of olives in spiced oil. And Tricia made a few more recommendations.

We were served the vegetable tart, the spicy shrimp spring roll and the hearts of baby lettuce. The tart was a compact pile of veggies, layered and marinated and amazing. It was also one of the few vegetarian dishes available. More on that later. The shrimp spring roll was crispy outside and crunchy inside and damned delicious. And oh! The baby lettuce! It came bunched together so it looked like a little bouquet! Food that tastes good is great, but when it looks good too, well! We polished off every crumb of all three dishes and were practically licking our fingers when Tricia returned to see which main courses appealed to us.

When I explained that my date was a vegetarian she seemed distressed. She was ready to recommend a few things, none of which was veggie-friendly, and evidently they were already on the grill. Or stove. Or whatever. We scrambled to assure her that one of the pizzas, the margherita, would do just fine. So after two glasses of red wine we hadn’t ordered (neither of us drink red wine; our yummy cocktails had been whisked away) arrived, we were served the peanut crusted ahi tuna, the pizza and the special risotto of the day, seafood. We could hardly fit all the plates on the table!

The tuna was interesting; a vaguely peanut crust flaking off seared tuna. It was only slightly dry, not quite as moist as most, but delicious nevertheless. My date rated his pizza a seven out of 10, but gobbled down every bite. But the risotto! The bowl was ringed with mussels and there were firm shrimp and succulent scallops in almost every bite. It was rich and buttery and way more food than I could handle. That didn’t stop me from almost polishing off every morsel, however, and Tricia seemed downright amazed at how well we’d done, practically finishing three full meals between the two of us.

Perhaps that was why she didn’t offer us any dessert. In fact, once our dinner plates were cleared away, we felt like we’d become invisible. Up till that point, drinks, wine and food had been presented, unbidden. Now I just wanted coffee. So we flagged our waiter over and asked if that would be okay. As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to make demands when you’re dining for free. It’s like being a guest in someone’s home, rather than a customer. But we got our coffee and although I would’ve loved to be offered a taste of their cr?ɂ?me brulee, I don’t think I had room for another thing. So we finished up our coffee and I signed the tab, which was disregarded due to my deluxe journalist status.

So what was the bottom line? Tricia is a gracious hostess and we watched as she chatted up other diners, so the attention was perhaps more than most, but not unusual. The restaurant is cozy and attractively appointed. Tricia’s husband is an artist and he’s responsible for the sconces, all warm tones and stark illustrations. The staff is friendly and the clientelle was an eclectic collection of young and old, professionals in suits and hipsters in leather and jeans, singles and couples. The dinner prices were reasonable and lunch is even more so. The food was impressively well presented, even if every dish wasn’t four-star dining. Bottom line? I have reservations for next Wednesday. But not as a journalist. I want to try the polenta fries, which looked delicious. And the cr?ɂ?me brulee.

The neighborhood has changed so much over the past two decades that someone who had moved away might not recognize it.

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