Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
174 Fifth Avenue
(betw’n 22nd and 23rd Streets)
Flatiron
(212) 675-5096

 

 

The first time I ever tried Eisenberg’s it was years ago and it was the kind of perfect accident that only happens when you’re on the road and openhearted. I wasn’t living here then, but passing through, killing time on my way to somewhere else, and I had this strange yearning for a tuna and egg salad sandwich.

It’s the kind of sandwich that, if you’re me, grandma would put out with the deli platter when we had company. It’s also the kind of sandwich that, if you’re anyone else but me, makes you wrinkle your face up in disgust at the mere mention of the thing. Because of that problem, no one ever made it for me (or at least, no one ever made it right). And right at that moment when I rounded Madison Park and stepped into the shadow of the Flatiron Building, the craving hit and it wouldn’t let go. Maybe it was the turn-of-the-century flair of the skyscraper, or maybe I was just feeling sentimental, but I wanted that kind of regular food you used to be able to get on every street corner in New York in the heyday of my grandparents. A few seconds later I was peering through the window of Eisenberg’s, and there it was, printed up as matter-of-fact as can be on the miraculous wooden board hanging over the lunch counter. That day — and the hundreds of times I’ve returned ever since — I regained something lost.

The most important thing one should say about Eisenberg’s is that it’s real. Because of its gorgeous lunch counter with hanging lamps and dark wood and mirrors it gives the impression of kitsch when it is, in fact, authentic — a real New York City lunch counter from way back in 1929, preserved intact from the tiles to the paper hats for your continued pleasure. Of course, I was not (despite my best efforts) alive in 1929 to vouch for this, but I know it’s true — everyone does as soon as they sit down on those squeaky swivelly stools.

Here, I can count on the fact that the service won’t be about kissing up or tricking you into spending more — it’s about getting you in and out as fast as they can while not skimping on the food. The counter guys won’t offer a menu right away — they know that most of their customers already know what they want. The soup and sandwich and cherry lime rickey will show up before I can find the beginning of the sports section. My numbing cubicle quiet will be pleasantly shattered by the human din along the counter: the woman taking phone orders shouting down to the grill, the harried waiters shouting over my shoulder, the exasperated pleading for those milkshakes or that chocolate cake. And presiding over it all will be the quiet anchor of owner Josh Konecky, a regular who bought the place last year to save it from closing down (and who brought in the sublime fresh turkey burgers, among other things). Nothing ever really goes wrong under Josh’s gentle watch. And more importantly, no one ever goes home hungry.

The least important thing one could say about Eisenberg’s is that the food itself isn’t overly remarkable. One bite into your soggy pickle will make it clear that these ingredients are far from market-driven, farm fresh, or organic. This is irrelevant because it’s prepared so perfectly. My staple turkey, swiss, and slaw sandwich (that tuna and egg salad is now reserved for the rare moments when I suffer from a nostalgic boom) shows up thick and perfectly balanced. The pea soup isn’t watery and warms the belly with a hearty savoriness that all pea soup should have. They are especially proud of their old standbys here (the matzoh ball soup, pastrami sandwiches, egg creams, etc) and they should be. Not because they are trying to be anything special but because they aren’t — they just taste real good.

I would beg your leave to philosophize for a moment and say that no restaurant can attain that quality of real-ness without the real people who work there. I accidentally tested this theory last week when poor planning left me at a higher-end sandwich and salad chain for lunch. No one making any of my food really gave a crap if it came out right. They were trained to listen to numbers, to make things in an order, to try to remember to smile while doing it, and to do it as quickly as you can. Everything in my salad was either overloaded, chintzy, or completely absent. No one could answer any questions. No one offered to refill my glass. No one cared.

The next day, I returned to Eisenberg’s. The counter guys were chatting with us, happy to see everyone again. The food came out fast and perfect. The owner shook hands with folks as they went back out into the cold, into the rest of the work day. This is what gives the place its yesteryear charm — not the fading wallpaper.

The Eisenberg’s staff put out hilarious anti-health craze messages on their sandwich board outside. But they aren’t rebelling against eating right. They are just declaring themselves an oasis in the crazy, plastic world we live in. There was a time when every lunch spot in the city looked like this place. This is reason enough for every one of us to treasure it.

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