When New York was young it was an engine and each neighborhood did its part to keep it running. Its fuel was the constant stream of goods from all over the world, arriving on ships in the excellent harbor to supply the growing millions. The middle step between the ships and the dinner tables was the little triangle-shaped parcel of land below Canal Street that we call Tribeca today.
The Washington Market sprawled along the river and the streets around it bustled with the secondary needs of industry — the warehouses, icehouses, mills, and food companies. Restaurateurs and regular New Yorkers wound through those narrow, cobbled streets to haggle and forage and prepare for each busy day of keeping everyone alive, and the whole neighborhood became known simply as “the market.” That was its purpose.
Everything always in flux, years tumble away and the city relentlessly reincarnates — some cities can’t weather the change that basic evolution brings but New York is always, sometimes defiantly, New York. Tribeca is very different now, but any evening’s walk to the Tribeca Grill, passing the loading docks where horse-drawn carriages once lined up to unload their wares and the steel awnings that once kept the rain off the piles of grain, reveals that this neighborhood, brand new and steeped in history, still speaks to the nature of the city — an eternal, clockwork system of business and life.
Tribeca’s brief period of dormancy began with the advent of container shipping , which required bigger, more modern ports. New Jersey had all of those, so away went the ships. Our docks fell into disuse and then, one-by-one, fell into the river. Bigger trucks couldn’t navigate those tiny streets so the Washington Market closed in 1956, scattering into fragments throughout the boroughs while the general marketplace surrounding it disappeared into beautiful cast-iron emptiness.
In the 1970s, the government, seeking to rescue the neighborhood, built some welcome affordable housing along the river. In came the people and with them the services they need, and New York’s famous resiliency brought to life an old and important corner.
While getting to know the neighborhood, Tribeca Grill is a great ice breaker. Some are scared off by Tribeca’s growing affluence, but there’s no pomp and circumstance around here — the neighborhood’s benefactors (including Tribeca Grill owner Robert DeNiro ) don’t want a show piece. They want a nice place to live. And what better way to judge its niceness than by spending some time in its dining room?
Whenever I want a really good steak I think Tribeca Grill. There are countless well-heeled steakhouses in the city, but the filet mignon here is more than perfect — it’s served with no attitude, and that neatly sums up what’s special about this place.
At similarly priced establishments, one is easily intimidated by rude and snooty wait staff. Here, you are simply welcomed in for dinner. Someone nice takes your coat, someone else jokes with you while getting you situated at the table, and then an easygoing waiter comes along to guide you through what they have to offer that night. The staff will never rush and never frown at your questions. They’re here to help after all, often with warmly honest personal recommendations if you ask for them.
As real as the staff may be, so is the food. The menu might be described as American but it’s really what I like to call “normal,” meaning fare you would make for yourself or your friends any given night. You can find that kind of dining anywhere, of course, but rarely is it brought to you in such a fine establishment with the feeling of a small, intimate dinner party at home so well-captured.
- A typical special here would be the best lentil soup you’ve ever had, complete with little bits of bacon just like grandma’s.
- Staple entrees like braised lamb are served with things like squash and spinach. The seared tuna is hearty and comes without the expected wasabi-induced “fusion” notes.
- When it’s time for dessert your blueberry tart will be fresh from the oven, maybe drooping a little on the side where a berry burst and spilled over. This lack of perfection lends the sweets an elevating charm that’s hard to find in this type of restaurant in this type of town.
- While New York cheese plates are often overpriced and underwhelming, theirs is an astounding array of choices from Murray’s (just up the road a stretch on Bleecker), the store you go to to pick up some pre-dinner snacks on the way to your buddy’s apartment. Normally stoic Darcy even shed a tear at the sight of the menu, which now hangs proudly above her desk.
When Tribeca started booming in the ’80s it bore the telltale signs of what we often sneeringly call gentrification — the luxury condos, the old pubs priced out of the rent they’d been able to manage for ages.
But the price of things doesn’t define a neighborhood; its character does. This neighborhood works hard to maintain a sense of non-corporate autonomy (note the conspicuous absence of a Duane Reade on the corner of Duane and Reade Streets). In fact, it’s clear while walking to the Tribeca Grill that the triangle has just evolved. The building still has its steel awnings — now they just keep the rain off the diners waiting for their tardy friends. DeNiro and other investors understand that neighborhoods change but what makes them what they are are the neighbors ; real people who pick their kids up from school, stop at the bakery on the way home, maybe pop into the local joint for a bite.
So an early dinner here easily becomes the cornerstone of an evening out in the old town. The hostess helps with your coat on the way out into the quiet bustle with the skyscraping lights glittering nearby, the racing taxis followed by streaks of red and fading horns, and the stiff breeze blowing in off the ageless Hudson; all here, where people have walked for hundreds of years, doing their business, moving steadily onward.