Travel

The New York Cafe Where Writers Go to Work — and Eat Cake

In this series for T, the creator Reggie Nadelson revisits New York establishments which have outlined cool for many years, from time-honored eating places to unsung dives.

“It’s hard to think of a better example than the Hungarian Pastry Shop of what makes one love a city, a neighborhood, a place,” says the poet and author Rachel Hadas. “That ‘what’ is hard to define but easy to recognize and to remember. It’s a combination: the location and the people, the coffee and the weather, the croissants and the conversations.”

Hadas has been coming to this small espresso store on Amsterdam Avenue and 111th Street, reverse St. John the Divine, New York’s grandest cathedral, because the late ’80s. In these early years, after she dropped her son off for varsity close by, she visited virtually day-after-day; now, it’s often a few occasions a month. And she shouldn’t be alone in her affection for the place. The Hungarian Pastry Shop, with its red-and-white striped awning and rickety steel chairs, has been beloved for many years by writers in addition to Columbia and Barnard college students and professors who come to eat its wealthy desserts and cookies, drink the “Hungarian coffee” — a candy and robust drip espresso with almond flavoring and a mountain of whipped cream — and sometimes scrawl their politics on the lavatory partitions. The graffiti received so unhealthy at one level that the cafe’s proprietor, Philip Binioris, repainted the entire room. “The discourse had become aggressive and ugly,” he explains. “People are capable of more enlightened debate.”

There’s no Wi-Fi right here, and the lighting within the lengthy, slender room shouldn’t be nice, however the espresso refills are free and the pastries giant and candy. In the glass-front counter close to the doorway to the store are Dobos tortes (sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with arduous caramel), Sacher tortes, strudels and Hamantaschen, virtually all made in home. But pastries however, this place is in regards to the environment; it has the sort of vibe folks as soon as discovered within the cafes of Paris or Heidelberg or, certainly, Budapest. You hang around right here, you attain a sort of mental avenue cred. Ask any Columbia alumna about it and you’re certain to unleash a torrent of postgrad nostalgia.

It’s additionally a neighborhood place the place native households and children linger on the tables and eat up the apricot Linzer tarts and pains au chocolat, and it has remained a lot the identical since 1976, when Philip’s mother and father, Peter and Wendy Binioris, purchased the store from the Hungarian couple who had opened it in 1961. According to Philip, there was a big Hungarian and Czech neighborhood within the space in these days. “My father began working as a busboy at Symposium, one other restaurant, within the early 1970s, after emigrating from Greece,” he says. Later, Peter turned a waiter at Symposium and ultimately, together with his spouse, took over the cafe. Hadas recollects asking Wendy and Peter years in the past how they managed to run the place with 4 youngsters below the age of 6, together with Philip. “Wendy replied, ‘I have no idea. I can’t remember.’” But handle they did. “The family seemed harmonious,” says Hadas, “and for countless denizens of Morningside Heights, the pastry shop was always a friendly place of refuge and peace.”

Philip labored right here after faculty from the time he was 13, and in 2012, when his father retired, he took it over. As he chats one morning after I go to, he stops to wave at a buddy, then hurries to make a cappuccino. “It’s our daily customers who make us what we are,” he says. “They really love the place, and they keep us honest. It is a common occurrence for us to have someone walk up to the counter and tell us, ‘It’s exactly the same as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.’ That’s a big deal in a city that changes so quickly.” Hadas agrees: “It’s the way it changes constantly but also remains reliably and reassuringly the same, so that the very changes are part of what one expects. Philip, whom I remember as a small boy, is now a tall, bespectacled father. Waitresses come and go. Children grow up; Cathedral School and Columbia and Barnard students graduate.”

Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia and the creator of the 2018 ebook “The War Before the War,” recollects the cafe as a comfortable shelter on winter mornings, one the place he and his spouse, Dawn, would cease after they dropped their daughter, Yvonne, off in school. “Back in the ʼ80s and early ʼ90s, the Hungarian became a sort of writing studio for me — a place where one could somehow be sociable and focused on work at the same time,” Andrew explains. “I wasn’t the only writer who developed a language of nods and waves that signaled to friends whether one was there to work or to schmooze.” Whereas different regulars relied on the caffeine, in Andrew’s case, “I became completely dependent on the almond horn pastry — the crunchier the better — which got my working day off to a great start.”

This little pastry store neighborhood is emblematic of an intensely tribal New York custom the place everyone seems to be interconnected if solely by advantage of being right here over time. Some regulars share a love for the desserts, others are joined by lives that revolve across the close by college. I do know a writer who remembers the place with fondness from her Barnard years — how she was younger there, how she waited for a boyfriend, how she wrote her thesis at one of many tables. “I had memorable coffee hours here with the poets Jane Cooper and, later, Rachel Wetzsteon, both of whom lived around the corner on 110th Street,” says Hadas.

On a winter afternoon, I’m sitting at a desk within the cafe consuming a pastry with Yvonne and Dawn Delbanco. Yvonne, now 35, went to faculty with Philip Binioris’s sister Sofia. “Their father would allow us to ‘help’ make cookies — I think it was the raspberry and apricot Linzer tarts,” Yvonne says. “We were actually allowed to sell some of our better-looking creations.” Hadas, who’s Dawn’s finest buddy, can recall a complete world passing by the pastry store. “It has been a regular meeting place for endless conversations about children, parents, husbands, school, literature, art, life and death,” she says. “In the spring of 2019, my husband and I made the acquaintance of Simone, the infant daughter of Yvonne Delbanco and her wife, Emilia Hermann. Where else would we meet but at the pastry shop?”

Philip stops by to chat for a second and then directs my consideration to the wall throughout from the pastry counter, that includes many books not less than partly written within the cafe. There are novels by Julie Otsuka (2002’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” and 2011’s “Buddha in the Attic”) and Rivka Galchen (2008’s “Atmospheric Disturbances”), brief tales by Nathan Englander (1996’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 nonfiction work “Between the World and Me.” “What I love most about the wall is the variety,” Philip says. “Just like the city we live in, there is a little bit of everything, from self-help to academic works, philosophy to children’s books, fiction and nonfiction — award winners and not, they all belong, and they are all part of our community.”

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