After weeks of back-and-forth emails and texts, I’d finally lined up lunch with Julia Baird, a deputy editor at Newsweek and an expat Aussie who made her mark as an op-ed editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. Despite being a native New Yorker, I’m in the strange position of being more comfortable networking with Australians through the friends and associated I’ve made over the past decade, and talking about life back in Sydney and Melbourne, and how it differs from being back in the US. My mother also gives me dirty looks each time I say “home” and I mean Sydney, not New York.
Julia just had a baby a few months ago, so she’s currently on maternity leave, and we decided to meet to eat near her place on the Upper West Side (UWS). I love the UWS for its relaxed streets and crawling distance to Central Park, but it’s also a bit of a dining wasteland, save some notable exceptions that I can never remember. With the usual dilemma of where to eat around here, Julia suggested the café above Fairway.
I used to date a girl on 81st street – one of the nicest women I’ve ever dated, for that matter, but I was too career-driven and selfish back then – so I had been past Fairway numerous times, but never stopped in. People would always rave about it, but I could never get the inspiration to haul shopping bags of food on the PATH train back to my apartment in Hoboken.
For non-locals, Fairway is a haven of incredible produce, meats and dry goods on Broadway (the street, not the theatre district), and a top spot for sourcing local and quality goods. I asked Julia if Fairway was still relevant in an age when upmarket chain Wholefoods was taking over New York, and she said yes – it’s still the most conveniently located and has a better offering of quality, artisan products.
Julia described the café as a classic UWS experience, but somehow I never knew about the upstairs café (serves me right for being a downtown NY snob). I arrived first, and found the entrance through the middle of the outdoor fruit stands, into a door and up the stairs near the lengthy cash-register lines, I quickly passed the bustle to the relative peace of the café upstairs. The room is neither dowdy nor refined, but simply comfortable: cleanly set tables, some with fresh flowers, and light streaming in from a wall of windows.
I have to admit that I expected a menu a bit more focused on the seasonal produce on offer (Sydney’s Café Sopra this isn’t), but it was more of a simple menu for casual grazing. I was tempted by the half-pound burgers, but having one big meal too many, I opted for one of the salads, which Julia recommended. I order the “composed” salad, a mix of mesclun leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, shreds of poached chicken, boiled shrimp (prawns), chunks of avocado, pieces of hardboiled egg, blanched green beans and pine nuts. It was all in a nicely light mustard vinaigrette, which is always welcome amid a heavy-handed approach to food that’s abundant in NY. But as expected, the bowl of salad with massive. Portion control remains a big peeve of mine about food in the US in general.
The salad was hearty, fresh enough and filling, if kinda forgetful. Julia told me that the pancakes are terrific, so I’ll have to come back for those, and there’s a whole steakhouse selection for dinner at a not-unreasonable prix-fix of $29. Maybe getting the prosciutto with melon, a dry-aged NY strip steak and the tarte tatin would give me a better sense of the classic experience that the café is known for.
Of course, sometimes the meal is more about the banter at the table, and what’s on the plate is merely a supporting actor. That was the case today. Plus, I’m still ‘new’ at being back in my native city, so it was great to meet a, well, fellow Australian journalist and get a sense of what’s happening within the publishing scene here.
And with a sought-after table next to the window, it was a nice way to spend lunch with a new friend. If, like Julia, I lived within walking distance of Fairway, I would’ve made the most of the location, and wrapped up my meal by doing a bit of a perve and shop of all the inspiring produce just down the stairs. I’m still waiting for my own Fairway to open up in Hoboken.
Fairway Café Steakhouse, 2127 Broadway (btw 74th and 75th sts), NYC, www.fairwaymarket.com