In the many decades I’ve called New York City home, I’ve always lived within a mile of Angelica Kitchen. This is probably an accidental circumstance. But who knows? Maybe it was a subconscious choice. As long as I’ve known the city, the restaurant has played a role in my experience of it.
I first showed up in New York in the winter of 1979. I was a 16-year-old dropout on an extended stay from Northern California to be with my then almost-40-year-old boyfriend. He lived in a “loft” way the hell downtown, a freezing, dirty shithole above a terrible Chinese restaurant.
After a few weeks of being too shellshocked by the intensity of the city to venture out on my own, I started exploring. The East Village quickly became where I wanted to spend my time, even though I had to take two trains to get there. The neighborhood back then was a crazy-quilt mix of Eastern European immigrants and Puerto Ricans, leftover ’60s types, and folks (including me) who had recently discovered the church of punk rock, the music form that had been invented about two years prior.
As a product of the post-hippie Bay Area, I grew up with the smell of fresh alfalfa sprouts and goldenseal (an herb used to help you get over a cold) and the sounds of Joni Mitchell always lurking somewhere. The Good Earth, a vegetarian restaurant chain, was my favorite place to eat. I arrived in New York expecting none of that. But in short order, I found that San Francisco-style culture thrived there, and the East Village was its headquarters. Sandwiched between bodegas and Ukrainian delis were an impressive array of the kinds of food co-ops, New Age bookshops, and herbal-remedy stores I was already familiar with.
I first came to know Angelica Kitchen — which opened in 1976 and whose name was inspired by an herb shop across the street — with my boyfriend. I remember him telling me of its many virtues. Entering the restaurant for the first time was transporting: I immediately fell in love with its woody interior, its hearty miso soup, its delicious fresh juices. It made me feel at home.
Until it closed, Angelica Kitchen remained a place I liked to go. I wager that I went there at least once a month — which, if you do the math, is quite a lot of visits. I’ll be the first to confess that the food there wasn’t uniformly wonderful. Still, there were many dishes you could depend on. The lentil soup was to die for. The vegan “reuben” was as delicious as it was weird. And though the cook who actually invented the dragon bowl is disputed, Angelica Kitchen perfected it: The four or five dressings that were served alongside its version of the composed plate of brown rice, stewed beans, and steamed vegetables were always superior to everybody else’s. Whenever I ate it, I felt better for it.
From the beginning, it was clear that Angelica Kitchen was one of those places that you couldn’t take just anybody to. I began to hone my abilities to know who was going to enjoy it and who was going to abhor it. There were the people I could go with who’d get off on the sprouts and the tahini and the house-made sauerkraut. And then there were the people who, if I suggested a meal there, would either deliver a flat out “No,” or would concede but then desultorily pick their way through whatever was sitting in front of them — and then afterwards want to go the KFC at the corner of 14th and 2nd Avenue.
Before real estate prices made its existence impossible, Angelica Kitchen was both a marvel and marvelous: one felt a connection to the past there even though the restaurant sat firmly in the present. You’d see people new to the city, younger faces, but also plenty of old-timers like myself. The clientele flowed through, but its soul was frozen in time. It had been updated — it moved to a new location, it became larger and leaner and fancier than it had once been — but by and large it was the same restaurant it had always been.
The East Village I stepped into in the late ’70s was undergoing radical changes —the hippies were moving upstate and the bodegas were becoming galleries. I distinctly remember the local community’s shock and anger when the first Gap opened up. But the changes that are happening to the neighborhood nowadays feel harsher, faster, deeper, meaner, more permanent. Relics of the East Village’s hippie moment are not in great evidence now, but Angelica Kitchen remained a happy reminder of that softer time.
There’s no fighting that New York City has been, ever since its first imaginings, a place where the dollar is what matters most. Yet at the same time, in my four-decades-long knowing of it, I’ve never remotely witnessed what I feel is happening to it presently, where it is becoming a Bed, Bath & Beyond version of itself. All of the reasons I’ve wanted to live here are going away. And Angelica Kitchen was one of them.
James Oseland, the former editor-in-chief of Saveur, is the author of the upcoming memoir Jimmy Neurosis.