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Eater 38: Prune

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Kalina Archive, 10/24/06.

Prune is the place we go to after running down a mental list of new restaurants that don’t seem right for the moment. We think, “Oh, we’ll just have a bite at Prune, it’ll be nice, and then we’ll move on with the evening.”

Then we eat there. Then we wonder why we don’t do so more often and how it’s so easy to be flippant about a place that gets it so right time after time. The menu, handwritten by Gabrielle Hamilton (the heart and soul of the restaurant, and one of the few one-restaurant chefs left in this town), is concise and compelling. The tiny (38 seats, give or take) place is and has and will be packed, especially at brunch (it’s been years since we’ve managed to outwait the stalwarts who besiege the place on weekend mornings), often at dinner and almost never at lunch, which is probably why it’s our favorite meal there.

Part of the charm of Prune’s lunch is the dirty trencherman’s appeal of its lamburger, though the gout-inducing richness of the deep-fried sweetbreads with bacon, butter and capers at dinner might be even more of a draw on days earmarked for boosting cholesterol levels. The bar is fine place to get some honest drinking done – the bracing, muscular wallop of its Junipero Gibson, made with house-picked onions, is the unmatched by similar drinks at chi-chi cocktail bars around town – and the communal table next to the bathroom in the basement is an excellent cocoon for a night of cozy drunkeness with a small group of friends.

But it’s more than the food, or the space (which Hamilton more or less inherited intact from the space’s former tenant) or the drinks the particular style of coddling her army of pink t-shirted waitress practices.

The confidence behind the place, a manifestation of its owner’s personality, is the thing. Prune is not above seducing you with a particularly good meal or serving as the backdrop to a memorable night, but it is ultimately indifferent to entreaties, needing neither our love nor your affection, making no concessions and giving no quarter. Prune might just be New York’s best bistro: just because it’s no-nonsense doesn’t mean that there’s no thought behind it and just because you love it and doesn’t mean it feels the need to love you back. Tough love, tough cooking and a tough reservation. Prune’s a New York classic, and those who don’t get it probably never will.

You've just read entry number five on the Eater 38, Eater's living list of the 38 essential New York restaurants. Read about the rest, and watch the list grow, here. And do let us know if you'd like to nominate a restaurant for The 38.