The Café on the Corner
Those little square crackers that leave a slight orange residue on your fingers. Cheez-its? Their salty, cheesy flavor is what propels me on my journey along memory lane to Fanelli's. Not the smell of Scotch or the loud hubub of laborers and artists rubbing shoulders as they bet on fights or watch a Yankee game.
I remember an old man sweeping outside, just under that by now oh so famous red "cafe" sign (Mike Fanelli himself perhaps?), and then putting his broom away in the shed that is now the Soup Kiosk. Inside the shed, there was a bin full of little crackers (Is that, in fact, what a "cracker barrel" is?). The man would stick his hand in the bin an throw a handful of crackers to the pigeons on the sidewalk he'd just swept clean. He LOVED to feed the pigeons. And he once let me stick my hand in the bin too and grab a handful of crackers to nibble as an after-school snack. Am I remembering that correctly? Did he really give me crackers meant to be bird feed?
Considering that Fanelli's is less than a block from my house, I do not go in there very often. If I'm craving burger or if I need to stop for a quick lunch before heading out into the world, then I pop in, eat the same reliable food (tasty without any bells and whistles) with the same reliable service (courteous without any bells and whistles), and leave feeling that I got exactly what I expected, every time. I find such satisfaction in this kind of consistency.
Fanelli's, known by a variety of other names before 1922 when Mike Fanelli bought it and ran it for the next 60 years, has been continuously serving food and drink to the public since 1847. This makes it the second oldest such establishment in New York City. If you go into the back room, liquor licenses from years way past are framed and hung around its periphery as a testiment to its longevity.
In the early days, the bar catered to bigwig politicos from City Hall, and there was a brothel upstairs. As the neighborhood changed, so did the clientele. Industry brought factory workers and then in the 1960's and 70's, when Mike Fanelli was still working behind the bar, Fanelli's transitioned from being a blue collar joint to an artists' hangout. It seems that it took Fanelli a while to warm up to his new regulars as the bar became a bohemian oasis in the desert that was SoHo nightlife.
The bar is currenty owned by Sasha Noe, whose father bought it from Fanelli in the early 80's after promising never to alter it (apparently Fanelli's sons did not want to take over the family business). His patrons are now a motley melange of locals, tourists, and office workers, and though you are as likely to see immaculate Prada loafers as paint splattered Cat boots walk in on any given night, they tread on the same old tile floor and sit at the same old bar from yesteryear.
Although I have my own special memories of Fanelli's in the 1970's, I still feel a bit silly mentioning them. Fanelli's is a BAR after all, a place where grownups hang out at night. And I do not have any memories of that—I was in bed sleeping, like all of the other good little boys and girls of SoHo. So grownups—and I know you're reading this—what do YOU remember about the our little café on the corner?