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"I am the owner of this place, and I am not going to allow you to sit here and copy my menu," he said.
"I am not allowed to look at the menu?" I asked.
"No, you can't look at the menu, and if you don't like it, get out! Go write your notes in somebody else's restaurant," the belligerent bagel man roared.
9720 Hillcroft St.
Houston, TX 77096
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Of course my first reaction was anger. But on the way home, I started to reflect about the last time I was thrown out of a restaurant. It was in New York, of course -- three of us were eighty-sixed from McSorley's Old Ale House for bringing in a Stromboli's pizza. The waiter screamed at the top of his lungs while he put us out in the rain. The memory made me laugh, and after a while I started laughing about Kornhaber's tirade too.
And suddenly it dawned on me. At New York Coffee Shop I had encountered the authentic detail that is missing from the other New York-style restaurants in Houston: rudeness. The owner of a New York restaurant should be passionately irrational. He should berate deliverymen. He should swear into the telephone. And he should insult his customers. Everything about him should say: "You want New York ambience, my friend? I got your fucking New York ambience right here!"
New York Coffee Shop has it all: ambience, bagels and a dainty little Reuben, too. Unlike the open-faced monstrosities served at Carnegie Deli in New York and Kenny & Ziggy's on Post Oak, both of which are eaten with a knife and fork, you can actually pick up New York Coffee Shop's Reuben and eat it with your hands. The Carnegie Reuben costs $18.95 and consists of twin three-inch-high mounds of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese completely obscuring a couple of slices of rye bread. Two people can't finish it. (They charge $21.95 if you split it.) The Kenny & Ziggy's version is almost exactly half the size and price, but its undersalted corned beef is not nearly as good as the Carnegie's.
New York Coffee Shop puts a nice solid inch of good corned beef, kraut and Swiss on a griddle-toasted sandwich for $5.85 and calls it a day. I, for one, applaud this common-sense approach to the Reuben. I'm tired of having to choose between throwing away a pound and a half of corned beef or schlepping around a doggie bag that smells like sauerkraut and Swiss all day.
But my favorite New York Coffee Shop lunch is something the menu calls a luncheon plate. Under this heading the restaurant serves a scoop of tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad or chopped liver along with tomatoes, onions and lettuce with a toasted bagel. I had the chopped liver last time, and it was terrific.
On that visit, I was sitting by myself with the aforementioned notebook when Ed Gavrila walked by. "Hey, guy," he said, noticing that I was sitting alone. "Would you like a newspaper to look at?" What a sweet guy, I thought, as I thanked him for asking. He made his way through the place kissing women on the cheeks and bantering with little kids.
"Ed's the sweetheart and Jay's the tough guy?" I asked the waitress as she refilled my tea.
"Ed's the PR guy and Jay's the businessman," she replied. "Everybody would rather work with Jay. If something breaks, he can fix it. If a customer tries to send back half a hamburger for a refund, Jay says, 'Forget it.' Ed lets customers walk all over him."
Kornhaber is definitely not letting me walk all over him. In fact, he is now threatening me with permanent exile. If I don't tell him what I'm doing with this notebook, I won't be allowed in the restaurant anymore. So that's what he meant when he said I would be very sorry. No more fresh bagels! What a horrible price to pay. I'm getting a little tired of Kornhaber's face in my breakfast by now.
"Who are you to tell me I can't write in a notebook in a restaurant?" I ask him. "Who are you to read my notebook? That's a pretty serious invasion of privacy, don't you think? And how are you going to stop me from looking at your menu when you've got it pasted on the wall?"
"It's my restaurant, and that's how I'm going to stop you," Kornhaber bellows militantly. I am sure he is deeply committed to civil rights, the First Amendment and other such abstractions under other circumstances -- or then again, maybe not.
"So stop me," I challenge him. "Throw me out! Go ahead!" He stands there shaking in fury, but he doesn't do anything. "Look, either throw me out now, or go away and let me eat my eggs in peace," I say.
"I'll see you in the parking lot," he threatens as he stomps off.
I finish my eggs, pay the bill, tip the poor waitress and go outside. There I square off with the bellicose bagel brawler, but he backs down.
"I'll settle this my own way," he says. "You just go get in your car." He follows me and copies down my license number. Maybe he'll trace my address and I'll find a horse's head in my bed some morning, or my cat in a pot on the stove. You gotta love the guy. How many restaurant owners are this obsessed with what they do? I admire his passion, even if he does act like a putz.
I probably won't be allowed in anymore, but I still highly recommend New York Coffee Shop for great bagels with a little something on them. And if you're in the mood for a side of good old-fashioned Gotham rudeness, just bring along your notebook.