While the word “basic” has become wildly overused, it’s hard to come up with a more fitting word for the menu at Cafeteria. It has avocado toast; it has a kale salad; it has “street tacos” sold at prices that certainly do not connote any taco found on any street anywhere. Yes, it’s basic. Yes, with mac and cheese eggrolls, an early-aughts aesthetic, and 24/7 hours, it’s a dinosaur of a restaurant. But it’s also perfect.
Cafeteria opened in Chelsea in 1998, and since then, its history has been as a chichi watering hole for young partiers. Back then, the kitchen was overseen by Food Network star Tyler Florence, who served as opening chef. “It is a place where those ending their evenings cross paths with those starting their days, where one table might ask for milk in a sippy cup while another asks for more beer,” Diane Cardwell wrote for the New York Times in 2011. It’s perhaps most famous for being a Sex and the City restaurant, one that was once home to several brunch scenes between the fab four. Somehow, as other restaurants from that era drop like flies, this one has persevered and seems destined to remain open for all of eternity.
A friend of mine was somewhat shocked to learn that the restaurant she frequented well over a decade ago — back when it was considered unironically hip — not only still existed but still fills up regularly. We went to Cafeteria, and it may as well have been 2006. The restaurant hummed with an eccentric crowd, including one woman in a skin-tight yellow vinyl jumpsuit. The servers were in no rush to get us out of there. It quickly became clear that through the years, Cafeteria hasn’t really lost its weirdo charm, somehow both cool and silly all at once. Cafeteria remains an utmost experience.
For one, among 24/7 restaurants, it’s a rare breed. Sure, there are burgers and sandwiches and omelettes and milkshakes, but it’s not really a diner or the typical setting for post-night-out hangover-postponing food. There aren’t many places where you can get a hanger steak at 3 in the morning — and maybe there isn’t really a huge demand for hanger steak at 3 in the morning, but Cafeteria still makes the unlikely possible. Who orders meatloaf at a restaurant anymore? But at Cafeteria, it’s surprisingly good, served with mashed potatoes and green beans — as it should be. It’s a homestyle classic, and one of the few things served in the restaurant that actually conjures memories of literal cafeterias.
Elsewhere on the menu, some fusiony menu items like mac and cheese spring rolls and falafel tacos echo a very specific era of sceney NYC dining. The menu reads like it was trendy once, but it hasn’t really adjusted since then for new trends. Why change formula if it’s still working? The drinks menu is similarly a confusing blend. There are cosmos, of course. But there are cocktails that are less SATC-y, too, like one made with whiskey and Averna. Like the food, the drinks are simple but still solid, real ingredients instead of pre-mixes used throughout.
The space, too, is a total time capsule. The design — with its black-and-white palette, recognizable hole-filled chairs that look like something from IKEA, and garage door windows — evokes a certain early-aughts aesthetic that used to be in vogue and now just seems slightly outdated compared to the influx of color-heavy and plant-filled neighborhood restaurants. The bar has the words “beer,” “liquor,” and “wine,” emblazoned on it between bottles in lit-up letters, in case you have indeed forgotten what a bar carries. Recently, I couldn’t figure out if the restaurant was too bright or too dark. It seemed, impossibly, to be both at once.
That’s the most unlikely bit of Cafeteria’s success: It’s still weirdly chic despite never updating its look. There’s nothing else really like it on that stretch of Seventh Avenue in lower Chelsea, and it represents a genuine blend of low-brow/high-brow, attracting a fashiony crowd. It’s a scene, but it’s also definitely approachable. I mean, there’s literally a mac and cheese flight. Poetically called the “mac attack,” it costs $18 and is one of several ways to delay a hangover at 3 a.m. at Cafeteria.
It’s certainly easy to make fun of Cafeteria. Pull up Cafeteria’s website, and you’re greeted with a slideshow of mostly shirtless men eating food. And as a success story, it was never really an underdog, so it’s by no means some dining hero. But it has stood the test of time. It feels like a singular place, somewhere to catch up with friends or hit after a wild night out. Maybe its appeal in 2019 has something to do with the resurfacing of early-aughts trends in general. Or maybe Cafeteria is like the scrunchie of restaurants — clunky but undeniably practical, versatile, and strangely, even this many years later, utterly appealing.