March 1, 2005

An Old Dog With No Need for New Tricks

In her Gelf debut, food writer Aria Sloss reviews a West Village haven for the hungry.

Aria Sloss

Gelf enjoys a great many things in life, chief among them, good food with good company. In her semi-irregular column, Aria, our guru of all things culinary, will use her expert palate and years in the industry to report on New York's best and worst restaurants.

It's always been a firm belief of mine that people who don't like dogs belong to the same, pursed-lip camp as those who disparage small children and chocolate. It's a camp I don't fully trust, one that seems to me to fairly reek with joyless self-abnegation. It is to these people that I direct my sincere apologies, for it is very likely that they will never experience the sunny enclave of good food and goodwill that is the venerable Grey Dog's Café.

Grey Dog's
Yes, it's been around for awhile now—since 1996. And yes, anyone who lives within spitting distance of the West Village is probably well-aware of its presence, and may have even stopped by for a cup of its signature brew and a muffin. But what about those living (gasp!) above 14th street, or east of 5th avenue? How do they survive the bitter winter squalls without a bowl of chicken artichoke soup, lightly spiced with tarragon, or a grilled cheddar on rosemary garlic bread, just like Mom would have made—had Mom been, say, Alice Waters? And really, how does anyone survive New York—the city itself, those days that grind your forehead to the pavement and reduce your dreams of a bright future to the size of a pea—without one of the Grey Dog's chocolate-chip cookies, crisp against the teeth, silken against the palate, and roughly the size of a smallish meteorite? I know I couldn't do it.

So what is there to eat at this Grey Dog Café? Take your pick. I've been eating there for years, and have been disappointed not even a handful of times. A fingerful, perhaps. There was a listless hot chocolate once, remade upon request with an apology and a cheery smile. There were eggs, one Sunday morning, made over-easy instead of the designated scrambled, which, in my brunch-line-induced state of starvation, nearly reduced me to tears. Again, however, the mistake was rectified quickly and pleasantly, with not a trace of the irritation such a querulous inquiry might easily provoke in a place that does the kind of business on Sunday brunches rivaling that of the post office just before midnight on April 15. The only time I was truly crushed at the Grey Dog was the day last year when they told me the brief period in which they had offered ice cream had come to an untimely end. Not enough people were ordering it, they said. Not enough people ordering ice cream? The memory of the brownie sundae, warm on the bottom, cool on top, lingered like the memory of a first love. It was then that I thought, something's wrong here. People don't know what they're missing.

So. You can order one of the twenty-odd sandwiches written in colorful chalk behind the counter. You can have the #7, a neat little assemblage of savory and sweet involving green apple, raspberry mustard, and brie. The black-bean burger, served with sautéed spinach and sour cream on a toasted English muffin. The #3, fresh mozzarella and tomato with pesto—a sandwich that, despite its ubiquitous nature and susceptibility to variation (the tang of olive spread is added, in this instance), is often a source of deep disappointment in other restaurants. The mozzarella must be fresh, and thickly-sliced. The pesto must taste like basil and pine-nuts, not simply deposit a slick of green oil on the bread. The bread must be crusty. The people at the Grey Dog know all this.

They know more. They know, for instance, that if you're eating a chicken-salad sandwich, there's a good chance you'd like melted cheese on top, and maybe a slice or two of bacon. They know that if you're getting a hot sandwich, you want that bread toasted, not peripherally warmed. They know that if you're ordering a salad, you don't want to pay seven dollars for a plate onto which someone has simply opened a bag of pre-mixed greens and sprinkled dressing. They know you'd like corn in that salad, shredded carrots, croutons, slivers of sun-dried tomatoes, and perhaps, for a bit more, sliced chicken, tuna salad, or tofu. They know that by charging just shy of ten dollars for a Cobb salad in a place where you'd be hard-pressed to spend over fifteen for a square meal, they're promising something special. Never fear: They deliver on that promise, with a heaping plate of romaine studded with hard-boiled egg, chunks of avocado, crumbled blue cheese, diced chicken, and a healthy smattering of bacon. If Atkins dieters dream, this is what they dream of.

Grey Dog's
Which brings us to something very close to the Grey Dog's thrumming heart: the bread. Loaf upon loaf of fresh, baked-on-the-premises bread line the shelves behind the comely heads of the counterpeople (I mention their comeliness because, frankly, it is what draws many people here in the first place, and part of what keeps them coming back. Between my friends and I, we have harbored not-so-secret school-girl and -boy crushes on every member of the core staff. The attractive personalities and appearances of their staff and the high employee loyalty both testify to the Grey Dog's quality as a business. Those lookers have been there for years.) When you order one of the superior sandwiches, you can pick from an array of white, sourdough, seven-grain, challah, and more. You can also ask for just about anything on an English muffin, which, for me, at least, infuses the entire eating experience with a kind of madeleine-esque haze of nostalgia. A toasted peanut-butter-and-jelly in the early afternoon, paired with a grown-up version of a cold glass of milk—iced coffee, velvety-smooth—can reduce me to a state of near-infantile bliss. Which is not to say the other breads are to be trifled with. I've been known to order a slice simply as a snack, or as a pre-emptive move on one of their busier days, when I fear my hunger may exceed their ability to assemble my meal in less than five minutes. On those occasions I don't even bother with toasting; I simply take the bread as is, served with butter and jam on the side. It is delicious.

For dessert, there are cookies and cupcakes, brownies, rice-krispie treats, and pie. They are all made handily by the resident baker, who flourishes her whimsy with bone-shaped pie lattices and brightly-frosted cupcakes. See what I meant about that dour other camp? It's not so much about the presence of dogs and children and chocolate. Dogs are no longer officially allowed inside, since an incident with a bulldog and something smaller two summer ago, though occasionally one sneaks in between its owner's feet, wagging its tail smugly. I once brought in a five year-old girl I occasionally sit for, to sample a cookie, and the cooing response she provoked made me realize that I sees very few kids in the Grey Dog. Perhaps because, with the small tables set close together and Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews warbling in the background, it caters to those in their pre-reproductive years. And as for the chocolate—well, now that the sundae's gone, there's just the cookie and unadorned brownie to look for.

So what is it about the Grey Dog that feels so chummy, so anti-anti? I suppose it's the strong sense that every person in there—from the cooks to the counter-help to the runners to the people filling the tables at all hours of the day—is the sort of human being who would very much enjoy the presence of something large and furry, its muzzle damp with drool, or something small and bald, drooling as well. It's just that kind of place. Maybe, some hallowed day in the not-too-distant future, popular demand will clamor for the return of ice cream, and I won't have to hazard the guess that the clientele has a taste for hot fudge, as well. I'll see them in there, enjoying their sundaes. I'll be there, too.

Grey Dog Café: 33 Carmine Street between Bleecker and Bedford. 212-462-0041

Related on the Web:

• In a dated review, Cheapo Eats calls Grey Dog "very tolerant" of smokers and dogs.

• The Village Voice named the café Best Dog-Themed Gallery Space in 2002.

• See the menu at

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- Food
- posted on Mar 02, 05
Kathe Nelson

Yum!!!Great review---made me want to go to New York for lunch today!!!

Article by Aria Sloss

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