Cooking at the Figaro

I was an unpublished writer cooking nights at the Café Figaro in Greenwich Village. Dylan Thomas had hung out there, as well as the other Dylan, the one named Bob. You could sit for hours over a 60¢ cappuccino, playing chess, or just watching people go by on Bleecker Street. As folk singer Dave Van Ronk said, “You sat in the window and watched the snow fall.” It was not a tourist spot, although a few wandered in now and then. Mainly it was for New Yorkers from uptown and down, of which I was one, with four tiny rooms on nearby Christopher Street for 82 bucks a month.

When I entered the kitchen for the first time, I got my instructions from the cook who was going off shift. “Anybody gives you any shit you dip this pot into the French fryer and yell, hot grease.” He set the pot back down. “Because nobody fucks with the cook.” Then he took off his apron and left.

I didn’t know anything about running a kitchen and my instructions, as we saw, did not cover how to make omelettes at four in the morning. Mine spread wildly over the grill, and by the time I got them on a plate they looked like I’d stepped on them. But at four in the morning the customers were trying to work off a heavy drunk so they didn’t notice or care. You didn’t go to the Figaro for fine food, you went for conversation.

I, of course, only heard an indistinct rumble. My attention was on the disorderly eggs. The only people I spoke to were the waitresses and the guy who came in every night with his German Shepherd. I’d say hello and he, saying nothing, would open the refrigerator and shove his fist into the ground meat container. He would pull out a handful of raw meat and give it to his dog who wolfed it down in one gulp. Then they left. The management never questioned this. Presumably he was a Mafia dog from nearby Little Italy. He sure as hell wasn’t going to get any grief from me.

The chef’s salad was billed as having cheese, tomatoes, and assorted meats. I rolled the assorted meats quite neatly, framing the plate with them. They behaved well. It was a chef’s salad to set before the gods. The manager came back and said, “Go easy on the rolled meat.”

We had hamburgers for $.80, mushroom burgers for $1.15, and an Indian burger for $1.45, “smothered with chutney.” I know all this because a friend found a menu from the old Café Figaro and sent it to me. Its extensive coffee list included Café Ghibelline, described as “an ancient drink of a Roman political party – orange flavored dark coffee with cinnamon and whipped cream…$.75.” And you won’t find that at Starbucks.

The Café Figaro was one of several small Italian coffee shops in the village, where marble topped tables and wire backed chairs gave you a good view of the street as well as the polished beauty of an espresso machine resembling Artoo-Detoo.

When I finished my shift at five in the morning my shoes were covered with grease. I walked along Bleecker Street, leaving greasy footprints on the sidewalk all the way to my pad. Morning breezes from the Hudson were blowing up Christopher Street bringing the smell of the ocean. I was earning a living, nobody fucked with the cook, and after a few hours sleep I could start work on a short story.

The story of my time at the Figaro ended with a hamburger. It was a busy night, I was creating a Salad Niҫoise – “French-style tunafish salad with mixed vegetables, anchovies, capers, and sliced egg… $1.50″ The waitress looked through the serving window, slapped a plate down, and asked, “What the hell is this?”

The Café Figaro served something called a Moscowburger. I was looking at it now –a bun with sour cream and pickled beets peeking out its sides. The bun had a bite through it. I lifted the top half. There were the pickled beets and the sour cream, but no burger. I’d left it out. I was imagining the surprise of the customer as he bit down into his Moscowburger and got no meat, only pickled beets.

The manager was hovering nearby. Given the shape of my omelettes, he wasn’t inclined to grant me a pardon. At the end of the shift he fucked with the cook and fired me.

It was my last greasy sunrise up Bleecker Street.

My story ends there. For those interested in social change, I can report that in 1969 a rent hike closed the Café Figaro. It was replaced by a Blimpie. Tourists were swarming through the village, dropped off by tour buses, and Blimpie gave them deli subs and soda, kids meals and potato chips. No more Bob Dylan, no more writers hanging out, no more spumoni, no more bisquit tortoni named after an Italian café owner in Paris and made with eggs and heavy cream topped with minced almonds.

But, miracle of miracles, in 1975 a real estate developer reopened it, and attempted to re-create the old look. He did his best. But, though you can bring back the look but you can’t bring back the time. And the real time of the Figaro was over. In 2008 it closed forever.

If you’re looking for the Dylans, the 60¢ cappuccino, the chess players in the window, and the incompetent cook in the back, you have to look in the ghost realm. I go there, I linger, I watch it all, and then make my way along Bleecker Street, leaving dream footprints behind. And this thing called a blog, undreamt of back then, is where I can pass on a piece of an aspiring writer’s life in the bygone Big Apple:

Cheese Rarebit… $1.20
With tomato  $1.35 – With bacon $1.45 – With bacon and tomato $1.60