The Jones — which is what people who knew or worked at the place called the Great Jones Cafe — was my regular. It closed last month after 35 years on 31 Great Jones Street in Manhattan.
The Jones installed itself in my life in the earliest days of my New York residence because it was reliable, it was cheap-ish, it was good (with flashes of comfort food greatness), and there were always seats or would be seats soon, whenever you went. It was the sort of spot where you were more likely than not to be elbow-to-elbow with the sort of ambiguously and stratospherically cool people who made New York a place worth moving to. It was old downtown long after old downtown was gone, not that I was ever really here for it, having arrived to the city in 1998. It wasn’t a scene to make, but the scene was a pleasure to try to blend into.
The Jones was putatively Creole/Cajun, though that was more of an accent or inspiration than a hard-and-fast culinary principle in my mind. Its epicurean pleasures were of the everyday sort. It served an indisputably great cheeseburger. (I liked it better a decade ago when it was served on a Kaiser roll, but I’ve eaten Wimpy’s weight in Jones burgers since the bun change, so I liked the “new” one, too.) The side salad — a little wood bowl of chopped romaine, finely sliced red cabbage, shredded carrots, chickpeas, and a heavy sousing of creamy white-ish dressing was a seasonless wonder, something I never didn’t order, and something I’ve routinely aped at home. There was a chalkboard crammed with specials, most of which were worthwhile and vaguely New Orleans-y — blackened catfish, a plate of fried shrimp, chilis of distinction in a city without many. The wings were smart and unique, served in a dark pool of sticky-addictive sauce that at one point I learned contained maple syrup.
The room was small and boxy; if it held 50 people, including the dozen seats at the bar, I’d be surprised. The fixed menu was hand-painted on the wall. The kitchen was visible through octagonal cutouts in the walls behind the bar, and when orders were ready, the cook would ring a slap-it-on-top bell in one of them, the kind they have at unattended front desks in movie hotels. There was a beaten-up bust of Elvis in the window and a black-and-white cat clock with moving eyes that was, for many years, missing its wagging tail.
Until a recent change in management that had some unfortunate cosmetic consequences, there were Mardi Gras beads around the lights over the bar and year-round multi-colored Christmas lights that gave the place the perfect glow, the kind that made getting another beer seem inevitable and wise. There was a real jukebox stocked with an unbeatable selection of real records cared for by the longtime manager Bill Judkins. It was replaced with a dumb fake fireplace appliance, an aesthetic and spiritual atrocity I will never understand.
Along with the jukebox and the good lights, the recent changes killed off the place’s signature drink, the Shaggy. It was a Dark & Stormy made with nose-searingly spicy Blenheim’s Ginger Ale from South Carolina instead of flavorless industrial ginger beer; it was a truly great drink, a thirst-slaking edge-taker-offer with few peers. Its disappearance was the first sign that the end was nigh. But the Jones still choogled on for a couple more years.
Back in ’05 or ’06, I befriended one of the bartenders, Mark Ibold, and my relationship to the place deepened. I got to know Ngawang Sherpa, one of the long-time cooks at the place, a sweet Nepalese guy, who, a decade later, would high-five my daughter when she came in to eat. I have friends who worked there before I knew them, and I still count other folks who moved on from the Jones as friends and acquaintances.
“Mondays with Mark” was an unofficial thing for a few years, and for a long time that’s the night we’d go, and meet friends, or make friends, or glance furtively at the musicians who’d stop in before or after a show at the Bowery. I met Jim Walrod and Omar Sosa and Alison Busch and Bob Nickas while at the bar at the Jones, and it matters less to define who they are specifically here (though, do, if you don’t know, do get hip to them).
I guess my lament for the Jones is, on some level, a becoming-an-old-man in New York lament. Restaurants rarely last the 35 years that it did. The end of its run has many reasons — the economic reality of the neighborhood is toxic to democratic restaurants — and it includes the passing of its owner.
And while I’ll lament the loss of some of the dishes I loved there and the conversations over the bar, the main thing is that feeling of a wick being snuffed, of a place of minor everyday magic disappearing from an island where it feels like the magic is weakening. Goodnight, Jones. Downtown is emptier without you.