Love is just a passing word
It’s the thought that you had
In a taxicab that got left on the curb
When he dropped you off at East 83rd
— “Native New Yorker,” Odyssey (1977)
I was born in 1986, in the tropics, and my introduction to diner culture was largely through repeat viewings of Grease and its kin. Something spectacular was always afoot in this cinematic universe. Teen angels bursting into song. Trench-coated businessmen plotting conspiratorially over milkshakes, obscured by the din of a bustling lunch hour. A plucky waitress circling the golden classified ad that’ll alter the course of her life. Diners and coffee shops are constitutional to both the fabric and the fairytale of a neighborhood. The adventure of their novella-sized menus. Their tough-love regulars, who josh the servers as you would a family member. The small but terrifically dense ways customers conduct themselves: what papers they’re flipping through, the round-the-clock gossip, the songs they hum, the coffee order they take to go. It’s public theater.
Unlike diners, luncheonettes keep innocent and routine hours: more Norman Rockwell than Edward Hopper. An idiosyncratic breed, the New York City luncheonette—much like the traditional lunch counters once pocketed inside five and dimes across America—flourished in commercial districts during the first half of the twentieth century. These past 25 years, they’ve all but surrendered to a grim-reaper real estate climate and slick dining-out culture that favors midscale bistros and artisanal fast food. The city’s surviving luncheonettes are a mish-mash of eras, dignified but tactile, like the well-loved Hollywood glossies adorning their walls. It’s miraculous, and almost spooky, to hear a doo-wop ballad playing over their loudspeaker; today’s nostalgia radio is primed to cue up “Livin’ on a Prayer,” not “Earth Angel.” Classic jukeboxes, even the kitschy tabletop ones, are fossils. The teen angels have all but flown the coop.
But there is the one. Chris Giliberti, head of TV and film at podcasting company Gimlet Media, grew up eating in the city’s most beloved luncheonette, the Lexington Candy Shop on East 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Chris was raised between New Jersey and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but enjoyed a childhood spell of living catty-corner from the luncheonette in the ‘90s. He still saunters in for egg breakfasts and marvels at how little the place has changed since it first opened nearly 94 years ago, nevermind the Giuliani era. “For me, it’s an untouched oasis of 1990s NYC. Very nostalgic, and reminiscent of the New York I knew growing up,” he says. “The staff has stayed largely the same over the course of decades, and they’re all absolutely fabulous. Best scrambled eggs in the city, and the milkshakes are second to none.”
IS THERE A SONG THAT REMINDS YOU OF THE ATMOSPHERE AT LEXINGTON CANDY SHOP?
“Hmmm. Maybe “Time (Clock of the Heart)” by Culture Club, for its retained old New York vibe, even as everything changes around it.” — Chris Giliberti, head of TV and film, Gimlet Media
The Lexington Candy Shop began its life as, yes, a candy store and soda fountain in April 1925, when Greek immigrants Soterios Philis and Tami Naskos sold chocolate and caramels to the local sweet-tooths and neighborhood habitués. Soterios’s son Peter joined the family business in 1930; in the fifty-plus years that followed, the shop evolved into a full-service luncheonette known throughout Yorkville as “Pete’s Place” or “Soda Candy,” in reference to its awning.
And it remains, indisputably, a family affair. Peter’s son John Philis, a jolly and watchful presence, has run the restaurant since 1980 (a business partner, Robert Karcher, joined the operation a decade later). The luncheonette is a favorite haunt of rock gods like Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, but also a dulcet haven for museum-goers wandering in from the nearby Met. A son of Queens and a current resident of Port Washington, John is a public transit enthusiast (“It’s marvelous how the subway system is built; it lets you go from one end of the city to the other, on one fare”). There’s hardly a day when he doesn’t make the trek to Manhattan to take his regular station behind the counter, suited in his trademark white jacket.
As the “face” of the luncheonette, John appears regularly on local broadcast segments and au courant food blogs, always happy to walk someone through egg cream protocol. He embraces the old-fashioned flourishes of Americana-by-way-of-Gotham. One of his favorite city haunts is the original J.G. Melon, a no-frills Upper East Side burger pub. There’s something similarly unaffected about the Lexington Candy Shop: it’s as tough and tender as they come. Authenticity matters a lot to John and his team, whom he praises for their loyalty, warmth, and professionalism. The last person to join the full-time staff has been there for twelve years. There’s also his thirtysomething son, a manager at a midtown steakhouse who helps out at the luncheonette a couple of times a week. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.
IS THERE A SPECIFIC SONG THAT EVOKES MEMORIES OF RUNNING THE LEXINGTON CANDY SHOP OVER THE YEARS?
“A song? I’ve been interviewed a bit over the years, but I’ve never been asked that question before. [Pauses, ponders] Well, one of them is playing here right now: Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Being a teenager once, working on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, you know, the uptown girls were really very attractive. [Laughs] But, you know, the other song that comes to mind is Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” So you have “Downtown” and then you think of “Uptown Girl,” and those are good for the memories. They get things going.” — John Philis, owner, Lexington Candy Shop
Lexington Candy Shop functions, almost defiantly, as a living tribute to the working-class dining culture that informed the city’s values of community, ritual, and unfussy sophistication. Vintage photos of the luncheonette as it existed through the decades hang above its forest green booths. The dark mosaic floor, worn smooth, gives the space a touch of noir. (Fitting; Sydney Pollack shot a memorable scene with Robert Redford here for Three Days of the Condor back in the mid-’70s.) One window displays an assortment of international Coca-Cola bottles, their staggered, double-decker placement reminiscent of the devotional candle stands at churches.
The same kitchen has served customers since the late ’40s, its Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer whirring Bassetts ice cream through sixteen U.S. presidents and sixteen New York mayors. The hand-mixed sodas—orange, cherry, real cola, lime rickey—are toothsome, and the frothy malted floats taste like a Dion tune. Modernity has crept in, of course: the luncheonette has an active Instagram account and sells custom-stitched dad hats as merch. On my last visit, a hot-pink bachelorette gathering was unfolding one booth away from a demure stalwart reading up on the crimes of Sheldon Silver in the New York Post. Neighborhood high school kids outfitted in tony uniforms and Supreme backpacks shuffle in around three o’clock, music blaring from their phones. They’ve been attending birthday parties and playdates in these sacred spaces since birth, and so they’re forgiven their nuisances. A Japanese tourist asks Chef Ivan, the cook, for directions to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Lexington Candy Shop is potent in the ordinariness, its glamour encased in thick, buttery scents.
But back to its longtime admirer. Chris Giliberti, who now resides in Downtown Brooklyn but still cherishes his breakfasts at the Lexington Candy Shop twenty-plus years on, spoke with me about its discreet charm and named some of his other New York favorites.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had at the Lexington Candy Shop?
Many brunches with friends. There have been so many that they’re indistinguishable from one another, though all delightful and cherished… My order would have been French toast paired with bacon, alongside a coffee and a chocolate milkshake. How wholesome is that?
Tell me a story about eating there with friends.
I remember a long Saturday afternoon seated in a booth opposite a close friend. This would have been my first fall in the city, right after college. We parsed through the various elements of ‘adulthood’ with which we were becoming acquainted: bills, work schedules, commutes.
Have you worn anything memorable to eat there?
It’s run the gamut over the years. I once gorged myself there solo in a tuxedo before a wedding. Since I once lived around the block, I’ve also definitely worn pajamas. And lots of college sweats.
What kind of smell comes to mind when you think of the Lexington Candy Shop?
Savory breakfast scents. Coffee, too.
New York is always evolving, and people mourn the way the city used to be. What is it about the New York of today that keeps you grounded here, despite everything?
Practical reasons, mostly. Work, concentration of friends and family, a coastline, low earthquake risk.
What’s your favorite thing you have ever read about New York?
Hmm. I like the New York of Truman Capote’s letters, Too Brief a Treat.
What’s your favorite New York-centric movie?
American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron, 2000), for sure.
Where else do you enjoy?
Do you have any special city routines, traditions, or superstitions?
My routines and traditions have all been upended since moving to Brooklyn. (Which isn’t awful, I love Brooklyn.) An emerging one: weekly visits to the Alamo Drafthouse.
Is there something you eat only in New York that you don’t crave in other cities?
Will not f— with West Coast bagels.
LEXINGTON CANDY SHOP
1226 Lexington Avenue (at East 83rd Street)
New York, New York 10028
Menu Recommendations: A Lexington butter burger with fries, an egg cream made using the luncheonette’s homemade chocolate syrup, and fresh-squeezed lemonade
As Seen In: Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Nanny Diaries (2007), Fading Gigolo (2013), Experimenter (2015)