Eater's Robert Sietsema and Nick Solares take on a Bowery classic.
The website of Great Jones Café mentions that when the place first opened in June, 1983, Great Jones Street was so isolated and desolate that after eating, patrons would often rush outside and indulge in a game of Wiffle Ball uninterrupted by traffic. Nowadays in this bustling, now-upscale Bowery neighborhood, street sports — as well as rents — are impossible. Yet Great Jones Café remains, as much a clubhouse providing reasonably priced meals for the artists, writers, and rock musicians who have lived and labored in the vicinity as it is a place that employs them when the royalty checks dry up.
Though theme restaurants offering Texan, Cajun/Creole, and Caribbean fare were a downtown fad in the 80s (at long-gone places like Sugar Reef, Cottonwood Café, and Gulf Coast), this is no longer the case. Glowing orange late into the night like some toxic chemical spill, and with a prominent bust of late-period Elvis in the window as if on the lookout for more drugs, Great Jones Café is now nearly unique among New York eateries. Even the jukebox is worth preserving, stocked with 208 mainly forgotten hits from the past by the Flying Burrito Bros., Otis Rush, the Exciters, Los Nortenos de Nuevo Laredo, and Elvis himself, who sings his rather obscure number, "Do the Clam."
The interior is surprisingly businesslike and austere, 10 or so fairly comfortable tables dominated by a bar, the opposite wall stenciled with the regular menu. A chalkboard lists daily specials, many in a Creole or a Southern vein, while a few half-hearted advertising placards are calculated to induce nostalgia for the rural South. But how is the food, you wonder? I paid two visits to find out, after not having eaten there since the 90s. The mixed drinks are strong, the sense of isolation from the surrounding neighborhood palpable.
The best thing I ate was a bowl of hambone gumbo in a midnight-brown roux, with shrimp and rounds of Andouille sausage bobbing up like corpses out of the bayou in a James Lee Burke novel. Equally good was a plate of cornmeal-fried oysters, furnished with a dipping sauce something like a French remoulade, dotted with chives. Is there a Paul Prudhomme cookbook wedged between the stove and the wall in the kitchen? Drizzled with honey, the crisp-crusted cornbread is also amazingly good, by the wedge or by the skillet, though you might want to ask for extra pats of butter.
The bacon cheeseburger was voluminous but not particularly distinguished — though if you substituted the garlic mashed potatoes for the fries, things start looking up in a big way. Spying around me, I saw that several diners were treating those potatoes as an app. (Nowadays, fatty meat isn’t the greatest indulgence — carbs are.) And the Creole wings, wreaking minor changes on our native Buffalo wings, succeed in moving the geography about 50 miles south, to good effect. Skip the salad of mainly shredded carrots and purple cabbage, which my colleague Nick Solares wrinkled up his nose at as "too 70s."
I had two very enjoyable meals in an atmosphere blessedly quiet and relaxed, even with the jukebox. It made me nostalgic for an era in downtown New York when real estate pressures didn’t dominate everything, when food didn’t always have to be the best and most expensive it could be, when a meal was simply a meal, best consumed among friends.