I wonder if there’s anyone who still remember’s Taki’s Restaurant on 3rd Avenue and 76th Street (southwest corner) in Manhattan?
We used to eat there all the time – Caroline and I, pre-cats, sometimes joined by (mostly) college friends, all of us still semi-freshly arrived in Big City.
To most people Taki’s seemed like a basic New York coffee shop in terms of its menu (egg breakfasts, hamburger lunches, soups du jour, sandwiches, cakes and pies), its longitudinal layout (long counter and one narrow aisle, tables and booths along the north windowed wall), but really it was a superb, very reasonably priced Greek restaurant in a city that is now populated by pretentious, ruinously expensive Greek restaurants (which do feature interesting Greek wine lists, killer ouzo choices and ethnographically diverse regional specialties).
We didn’t need to drink alcohol at meals in those days – it was more of an occasional thing then – mostly we had Cokes with our standard memu of Avgolemono (Egg-Lemon) soup followed by Souvlaki and the best Baklava ever for dessert. We were kid drinkers then, mostly specializing in the powerful but ugly-tasting martinis at CBGB (bang for your buck) on concert nights and the fabulous psychedelic Mai Tais Foo Chow (in the same block) served in tall ceramic idol’s eye glasses. (Eventually we purchased our own set from the restaurant.) Taki’s Moussaka, Pastitsio and their other Greek items were also terrific, but for us the menu I’ve described was the proverbial “ticket.”
Upper East Side Studio Apartment
Taki, a brusque, but basically shy, pleasant and hard-working Greek man with a salt-and-pepper moustache, ran the place and was its principal chef. He was assisted by a smaller chef whom we stupidly referred to as Igor because he had a horror film henchman quality. Really, he was lovely, friendly man and the place stayed open late, which was good because I didn’t go to bed at 9:30 pm then and could be restless for activity at night. Once, I remember seeking refuge there after midnight when the tenement-slum where we were living at 1273 Third Avenue (our lobby was festooned with swastikas and absolutely shocking anti-Semitic graffiti, less than a mile from the Mayor’s house, but never in the news; those scrawlings belong in Washington D.C.'s Holocaust Museum post-war addendum section) was torched by a disgruntled tenant during a snowstorm and the Fire Department broke all our windows with pick-axes and evicted us. I called Janine's apartment a little further down East 75th Street and let the phone ring for a very long time. I knew she would eventually answer and we needed shelter from the storm. The apartment pictured above, by the way, closely resembles our next place at 227 East 83rd, a very pleasant studio apartment, which was miles ahead of where we were then. It's amazing -- I think I even recognize the view out the window.
The only untoward moment I ever remember having at Taki’s was when a feckless young man not unlike myself in appearance came in and requested Turkish coffee. I immediately felt the inward explosion that had gone off inside Taki and I saw him try to compose himself even as the fellow, thinking he hadn’t been heard, asked again. Inwardly writhing, gathering and seemingly self-attenuating, words eventually emerged. Taki spoke (as if reciting painfully but dutifully from an ancient, sacred law code): “We have GREEK coffee.”
The young man was clearly not historically or politically attuned or well-informed, but wishing to have coffee peacefully he went with the Greek option. He did good and did well. I can still taste that coffee today and see it in Taki’s small elegant cups. I have never tasted anything better.
Greco-Turkish War, 1920
Taki retired in the mid-1980s (we were living in Brooklyn Heights by that time, but still occasionally dropped in to visit). Somebody told me that he had returned to Greece. I hope he’s well and has enjoyed a blessed retirement. The store was taken over first by a dress shop and then by a small imaginative Chinese restaurant, which was much, much better than the undeservedly popular pizzeria just across the road. Of the old neighborhood, only J.G. Melon remains today. Who knows where the time goes?
This Avgolemono soup is simple-simple. The recipe appears in Esther B. Cory’s delightful, obscure and largely ignored Mediterranean Specialties for the Modern Cook (New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1963), a book commissioned by Filippo Berio Olive Oil, Inc. to promote their products in an earlier America when some of the poetry and art I like most was busy being born, not busy dying. I think I’ll make the soup tomorrow, but I will include some Greek orzo like Taki did. Fresh chicken broth would be best, but as Jane says: “You do you.” As always, in the moment and In Dis Ya Time.
4 cups chicken broth
4 egg yolks
Add lemon juice to hot Chicken Broth
Pour mixture gradually over beaten egg yolks, stirring constantly.
Serve immediately. If necessary, keep warm on top of double boiler.
In Dis Ya Time -- Itals (Link)
Who Knows Where The Time Goes? -- Fairport Convention (Link)