Friday, April 7, 2017

Farewell, Angelica

It's not a secret that New York is constantly changing. It is perhaps a vast understatement at best. Sometimes, the more I see it change, the more I worry about its future. Especially when it comes to places like Angelica Kitchen closing.

I first went to Angelica Kitchen, an East Village vegan/vegetarian restaurant, in 2013. And what's magical about it--or, what was, as today is the last day of service in the restaurant's 40 year history--is that every time I went back, the food was just as good as the first cold winter day I went in there. Right down to my last day there, this past Wednesday, when I walked in after a photography seminar to find the place whirring with people in a way I have never seen before. Normally it's so easy to walk in during the week and have the host seat just me at a petite table for two. I'd sit out, facing the restaurant and read the menu, always thinking I'd get something different...but I almost never did. The Dragon Bowl, a plate of steamed veggies and tofu served with dressing of your choice (I usually got the house-made vegan balsamic vinaigrette) and brown rice, was just perfect as it was and, as my mother often says, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'd sit and sip my cup of their Cranberte--a blend of teas and cranberry juice-- while I waited for the food to arrive, then delicately work my way around the plate of veggies with a pair of chopsticks until it was all gone.

Angelica Kitchen was, by all intents and purposes of the phrase, a neighborhood restaurant. Though the restaurant was absolutely fantastic, you'd never find it listed in anything like a top restaurant guide. It wasn't fancy, and the service wasn't always great, but it was delicious and reliable, the way your local diner might be. I'm curious about the number of restaurants in the entirety of New York City that have been open for four decades or more, places that have seen history come and go, that made history and made community themselves. Angelica served the community in the quirky East Village, but it also created a community around vegan and vegetarian food when it was still thought of as totally wacky 40 years ago. If you have read this blog before, you know that I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian--I simply love good food; better yet, good food that's consistent and affordable. I've also written before that finding a restaurant in New York that you want to regularly return to (and can afford to regularly return to) is no small feat. Restaurants close here probably literally every month, if not every day. In a city of so many options, you need something that makes people come back and Angelica Kitchen was one of the few places I regularly returned to.

But the restaurant had to close because of rising rents, rents that are rising because corporate chains are moving into the neighborhood. There's no limit to what rent they can pay, and landlords know that. So the independent businesses are bearing the weight of these decisions, and far too many of them--across the neighborhood and across the city--are closing. I have now seen several downtown performers like Tigger! and Penny Arcade accurately describe what's happening to our fair city: it's being infiltrated by the people we moved here to get away from. I'm scared that the closing of a beloved neighborhood staple like Angelica Kitchen will bring on many more and make the city into the suburban shopping mall I ran like hell to escape. Or, as The New Yorker headline so aptly put it this week: "The East Village Loses Another Place for the Young, Hungry, and Weird."

So here I am this Wednesday evening to say goodbye to this place that has kept me company so many nights when I wandered in alone after work or after shopping or just after a long day. I love macaroni and cheese dearly, but when you're in a rough mood and you need comfort food, sometimes the calorie count just doesn't pay. So I'd go to Angelica and treat myself to dinner, and suddenly so much would feel better. Miraculously, though I have almost always been a party of one here, I have never sat at the communal table to the left of the door. Tonight there's a rotating cast of dinner guests as so many other parties of one come in and out to say their goodbyes, too.

I am seated with a woman from Toronto, a man from Israel, and another man from Los Angeles. They have been coming here for five years, 25 years, and 17 years, respectively. We all share our Angelica stories this evening, each new person coming in and saying the same: "I'm so sad to see this place go." In between asking if you could please pass the pitcher of water or is this glass yours or mine? It's a place that has been a part of their lives: bringing new dates there, coming there after breakups, bringing family, friends, or getting take-out at Angelica To-Go next door. Later, a woman and her 20-something daughter come in and sit next to me: the daughter grew up going to music lessons across the street on the weekends, and they would come in to Angelica afterward for lunch. It may not have been the kind of place on a "Top Restaurants in New York" list, but it is definitely the kind of place that occupies a place in people's memories.

Soon my Cranberte arrives and the hot, sweet, tangy drink warms my tongue after a semi-chilly, almost-spring day.  It's followed by my Dragon Bowl, with its chickpeas, tofu, brown rice, greens, seaweed, and squash. I treat myself also to a maple tofu whip--I only rarely got dessert at the place, but I didn't want to leave just yet. A small swirl of the dessert arrives, topped with cinnamon and I take my time making my way to the bottom of its bowl, looking around at the iron chandeliers, the patterned wallpaper, the peach paint on the walls above it. There are still people waiting in line to get in, even though the restaurant closes soon. The man next to me orders a blueberry kanten parfait, a kind of jam trifle in a short glass, and shares with me. It's delicious, I think to myself, as I always did about any of the food there. And not too long after, the host spins the "Yes, We're Open" sign around and it's time to go. I look back, and the words "Sorry, We're Closed" in the window make my heart ache.

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