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Don't Ask What's for Dinner at 82 Year-Old Marchi's

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Bess Adler]

New Yorkers know that certain Gotham institutions sport their own set of rules. At Katz's Deli, be prepared to take a ticket at the door and have it marked up by every counter person you order food from. When you request an ale at McSorley's Ale House, you'll get two mugs. And don't look for a menu at Dominick's in The Bronx—the waiter will tell you what's available.

Marchi's on E. 31st Street in Kip's Bay is far less celebrated that those three, but its modus operandi is just as peculiar, if not more so. Since opening in 1929, it has served one meal, every night, week after week. It's a big dinner, with five courses, and well warrants the unadvertised $60 surcharge. But it is always the same, beginning with bountiful plates of crudités—huge stalks of celery, Genoa salami and a sort of Italian cole slaw.

Marco Marchi, one of the sons of founding cook Francesca Marchi, took my coat when I entered. "We do not accept furs," said a sign. Asked if he was the owner, he replied, "I'm one of them." I was seated in one of the two cheerful dining rooms that were in operation. The Christmas tree was ablaze. Nutcrackers guarded the fireplace mantle. Behind a large red curtain, the chef prepared the same foods he had for eons in a huge, roomy kitchen.

A Friuli-style lasagna, heavy on the meat, light on the tomato, arrived.

Francesca and her husband Lorenzo hailed from Friuli. As the story goes, boarders in their building were aroused by the scents emanating from her kitchen, so Francesca decided to open a restaurant and let them pay for her wares. Today the restaurant takes up the garden level of four contiguous brownstones, all owned by the Marchi family. There's also a larger dining room with a working fireplace, and a grand barroom. They are open when business demands.

The fried fish, green beans and cold beets arrive. It's catfish tonight.

Every plate and utensil bears the Marchi name. One imagines they were forged decades ago. The clientele are even older. Everyone here has an AARP card. But, if you listen closely, you'll find they're not slavishly faithful. Each diner has been here before, but for some the last visit was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. The restaurant also gets a lot of big parties, the waiter said. The night before, a bank had hauled in 85 of its employees.

A plate of chicken, veal, and mushrooms arrives, with a large salad on the side.

Marco sits down to dinner near the Christmas tree with his wife Christine. He pours out two glasses of wine. Are they eating what I'm eating? Doesn't look like it. But, then, you can't expect a person to eat the same food every night of their life. At a nearby table, a seventy-something couple dine together in silence, as they certainly have for many years. Across from them, a quartet talk of doctor's appointments and second opinions. The most colorful party is a group of old showbiz types. One, looking like Ed Wynn, is dressed in pink pants, a suede burgundy jacket and enough rings to make Ringo blush. Two of the party once acted with Valerie Harper. One once did a stint as a magician's assistant. And all take ten minutes to come up with the name of comedy team Burns & Schreiber. The temperature of the rooms is cranked up to a level your grandmother would appreciate. Between the food and heat, drowsiness sets in mid-meal.

Dessert arrives, a lemon fritter, crisp fragile Crostoli (thin, deep-fried, dough twists), provolone and a bowl of fruit.

I'm stuffed by this point. The food's been all over the map—the lasagna a beguilingly unusual Northern Italian take on the classic, the fish dry, the chicken good, the veal tasteless, and the lemon fritter and crostini fantastic. But, even picking away at the courses, I left full. Eating at Marchi's is still like dining at some friend's mother's table; she doesn't get every dish right, but she cares and you feels comforted.

I walked to the restroom, passing countless black and white pictures of Francesca, Mario, and his brothers Robert and John in younger days. A sign said the Marchi's is open Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Don't ask what's for dinner.
—Brooks of Sheffield


251 East 31st St., New York, NY