YORKVILLE, MANHATTAN — The corner canteen was everywhere in New York – until it was nowhere.
In a city where the safe bet is to bet on change, those lunch counters of yesteryear are mostly cherished memories now, along with Checker cabs, the Third Avenue El, newsies peddling the Herald Tribune.
When you visit the Lexington Candy Shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, however, that past is present — and you can taste it, one delicious custard at a time.
The Lexington Candy Shop opened in 1925 – that’s nearly 100 years in business here at Lex and 83rd – and underwent a major overhaul in 1948. That’s when they doubled the lunch side of the business and have given up on sweets, at least making them. Santa Clauses and chocolate bunnies don’t sell well in the height of summer, and space here is limited.
But the name, the sweet name of Lexington Candy Shop, which they happily kept.
The lunch counter itself is new here – and you realize the word new is relative when you learn that the counter was installed in 1970.
Yes, change can be constant all around him, but owner John Philis knows enough to leave a good thing alone. He knows this place better than anyone because he grew up in the candy business, working here as soon as he was old enough to take the subway from Queens.
His grandfather, a Greek immigrant, founded it and his father ran it for years.
“Lunch in New York was everywhere, every two blocks, three blocks at least. It’s a tough business. And the rents have gone up,” Philis said of what had been a first-rate immigrant business. generation. “A lot of kids went to college, worked in other professions. And (the lunches) slowly died out.”
This luncheonette thwarted the odds because of John Philis. He officially entered the family business in 1980 to help his father, who was not quite ready to retire.
With a background at NYU and a strong government career to fall back on, Philis figured it would be a fun gig for a few years.
A few years turned into 42.
“And I’m still here, and that’s great,” Philis said.
He has the help of trusted longtime employees and his business partner, Bob Karcher, who left a job as a McDonald’s restaurant manager, bringing his own golden touch to the luncheonette business.
“He has the same work ethic, the same mindset. It works. We’re very proud of the food,” Philis said.
All the good food in the world and all the architectural charm won’t get you far in New York without a good owner, and Philis is grateful for that.
Indeed, “wonderful” is rarely how you hear owners describe it in Manhattan, where a beloved hot dog shop of similar vintage a few blocks away would be slated for demolition, cleared for another tower. .
The other morning at the Lexington, customers kept pouring in, grabbing a stool or stooping down a booth, and ordering the good stuff: the BLTs, the grilled cheese sandwiches, the pancakes, French toast, coffee brewed in urns and blender-made shakes circa 1948, the magical year here, the year so many at the confectionery date back to, right down to the terrazzo floor.
Philis was standing almost exactly where, in 1975, he shouted “chicken plate” as Robert Redford ordered take-out lunch at the counter in the spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor.” You have to listen to it carefully, but you can hear Philis shouting those two words amid the clatter and Christmas music playing in the scene.
Philis still dresses like the counters of 1975 – the neatly pressed white jacket, the very image of luncheonette professionalism.
Indeed, the Lexington Candy Shop’s timelessness attracted many other filmmakers, and the week ABC’s Localish left off, Puma and Coca-Cola staged a “takeover” of the candy store for a campaign. .
What attracts Hollywood and major consumer brands is also what attracts loyal customers – it’s the authenticity of place, something that can be as hard to come by these days as a token tinkling in the pocket of a coat hanger.
“We’ve had a lot of customers who have been coming here for years, and they love this place. They feel like home,” Philis said. “It works well.”