When it comes to sandwiches, there’s early Bowie and late Bowie. We’re talking about David Bowie, who lived in a loft at 285 Lafayette Street in Soho from 1999 till his death in 2016, but who also visited the city frequently in the 80s and 90s. He was by all accounts a sandwich-eating guy. The Irish Examiner reported that he was fond of a prosciutto sandwich at Bottega Falai, now defunct, chased by a bombolone, but there are two sandwiches he ate repeatedly that are more prominently associated with him.
In the 90s, one of his haunts was a bistro on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street called French Roast, which bustled 24 hours a day. The real estate is now occupied by a Mexican restaurant, La Contenta Oeste, but the current chef worked as a cook at the previous establishment. Luis Arce Mota emigrated from Mazatlan, Mexico in the early 90s, and worked at Windows on the World, Union Square Café, and Bouley, among other places before landing a job at French Roast.
There he made a croque monsieur for Bowie three or four times late in the decade, by his count. When I went to pick up the sandwich, the chef, wearing a mask, described watching Bowie eat the sandwich. “He’d sit there by himself,” says Mota, gesturing toward a small round table at the rear corner of the restaurant, “and always wash it down with a beer, either a Pacifico Clara or a Stella Artois.” He went on, “Back then, the restaurant was filled with celebrities, and Quentin Tarantino was a regular.”
The recreated sandwich ($15) was lovely, made with two thick slices of sourdough bread. In between were several pieces of ham, and the top slice of sourdough was soaked in a béchamel composed of eggs, beer, and gruyere. “I used domestic gruyere back then,” Mota told me, “but nowadays it’s easier and cheaper to use the original imported from Switzerland.”
The sandwich was as rich as a sandwich gets, and moist too, and I cast my mind back 20 years to imagine “The Thin White Duke,” as the chef referred to him — recalling one of Bowie’s early stage personas — lifting up the sandwich with both hands, his fingers shiny with grease.
It’s still available off menu, but make sure to call ahead (212-533-2233) to order it.
Spring ahead to the next century, when Bowie was firmly installed in his Lafayette Street loft, and engaged in a regular round of daily activities. These could include a cup of coffee at La Colombe, shopping in Chinatown, and a stroll in Washington Square. One of the things he regularly did was eat a favorite sandwich at Olive’s, a shop that was then located on Prince between Greene and Wooster, but has since moved to 191 Prince Street, further west.
It now occupies a shady corner premises, with a window for walk-up ordering. Bowie’s favorite sandwich — which shows, if nothing else, how the crooner’s tastes changed over the years — reflects no mention of him, either in the name of the sandwich or on the menu, indicating a certain discretion on the part of the owners Toni Allocca and Nick Hartman, who opened the shop in 1992. (By contrast, Emilio’s Ballato, another Bowie haunt, features snapshots of him on the walls.)
The sandwich is called grilled marinated chicken breast ($11.50), which sounds like a dull way to start out, certainly not as rich and greasy as the earlier Bowie sandwich. The other ingredients, too, sound wholesome: tomato and watercress on split focaccia.
But the dressing boosts this plain sandwich into orbit, a generous smearing of chipotle-laced mayo, which oozes out the sides and lubricates what turn out to be a perfect combo of ingredients. The chewy cress adds a bitter edge to what might have been a sandwich that’s more sweet than savory.
Yet, Bowie’s 21st century sandwich has a healthy aura, perhaps more fitting to someone over 50 and health conscious than a touring rock star. It’s the kind of sandwich one can relish every day and not feel overstuffed, just the kind of thing to propel one of his famous walks around the city through parks and popping into the occasional boutique or newsstand — a proper stroll for a star who came to love New York City the same way we do.
It was my intention to celebrate the sandwich when I started this column early last year by finding as many tasty examples as possible. The emphasis was on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I have done this weekly, and periodically presented round-ups of the ones I consider best.