The Noho Star is my favorite neighborhood restaurant, even though it isn’t in my neighborhood. But whenever I go to a downtown movie, especially the Angelika on Houston St, or a downtown theatre, especially The Public, or shop in Soho or spend a few hours at The New Museum or meet friends from NYU, the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, I head for the Noho Star. It’s located near a number of major subway lines, including the Number 6 and F Trains, and sits just two short blocks north of Houston, at Bleecker and Lafayette Street.
Not an official New York Landmark, it’s been located at the same spot for 24 years—almost unheard of these days—and its clientele ranges from neighborhood artists, actors and painters (I’ve seen Chuck Close and John Lahr) to families of every age and income. But basically, it’s just a friendly, low-key place to eat where you can talk all night and no one will try to hustle you out the door. Just the other night, for example, while waiting for my martini (they make fabulous martinis), the husband of a couple sitting next to me, let out a big smile and said, out of the blue, “Isn’t this a great place? We’ve been coming here for years and just love it.” “Yes it is,” I replied. “I love it, too.”
Why is it so wonderful? For a number of reasons. First, because it’s reasonably-priced (though not cheap) “Eclectic American/Classic Chinese” menu suits all moods, all tastes, and most everyone’s purse. Second, it’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, so you can bring your kids and grandkids here (they have an excellent brunch) or an out-of-towner (they always come back) or a date. Third, it’s comfy, cosy, casual, not too noisy and just quirky enough in its décor to give it a hip but not-too-hip feel. Fourth, it has a lovely little bar, where you can sip a drink, read a book, eat a meal or wait for a friend and no one will bother you. Fifth, the food is consistently delicious. Sixth, the menu contains a brilliantly “edited” choice of every New Yorker’s favorite foods.
You can eat simply or elegantly, modestly or expensively. Not very hungry? You can have Grilled Vegetables for $8.50 or a Tuna Club on Toasted Rye with Guacamole and Tomato for $11.50 or a Shrimp BLT with Basil Mayo on Toasted Rye (Double Smoked Bacon) for $13.25 or a charcoal-grilled Noho Burger with Cheddar, Bacon, Guacamole, Tomato and Watercress for $15.75. Or a simple omelette, salad or soup.
Ready for a major meal? There are Weekly Specials which range from Steak Au Poivre with Roasted Corn Mashed Potatoes, $21.50, and Seared Sea Scallops with Pumpkin, Lobster and Baby Leeks, Chili-Lemon Vinaigrette, $22.50, to that old standby, Chicken-in-a-Pot, $17.50.
Though the menu is always evolving—for example, they just added Congee, a Chinese porridge to their Breakfast Menu, and a Lemon Poached Sea Bass with Roasted Fennel to their dinner—some dishes have been available since Day One, including Grilled Chicken with Lime and Coriander, $19.50, and Stir-Fried Sauteed Shrimp with Wok-Blackened Stringbeans, $19.50 (not to be missed).
Why the mix of American and Chinese foods? It seems that in 1985, when the owner, George Schwarz, opened Noho Star, (he also owns Temple Bar, next door, Elephant and Castle, and Keene’s Steak House), “fusion” food was coming into fashion. He particularly enjoyed Wolfgang Puck’s menu at Chinoise on Main, in California, but decided that instead of “fusion,” he’d rather have classic Chinese dishes. It’s an inspired combination.
But so are the array of other ethnic and taste options. On the Jewish-deli side, there’s bagel and smoked salmon; on the Mexican side, there’s Three Crisp Tortillas, Grilled Chicken Quesadilla and Vegetarian Mexican Salad; on the Italian side, there’s Spaghettini with goat Cheese, Arugola, Tomatoes, Black Olives and Capers, and my all time favorite, Crisp Calamari Salad (I’m totally addicted to it). All salads, by the way, are $17 and there are 11 of them. Throw in a touch of French, a touch of classic American, a touch of Viennese, and a separate menu of Noho Chinese Classics, including such great hits as Steamed Dumplings and Stir-Fried Whole Lobster with Ginger and Scallions, $20.50, and you get the picture. If the problem is that your friend feels like a burger and your other friend feels like fish and you feel like a salad, the solution is Noho Star.
For those with a sweet tooth, the Dessert Menu, mostly old-fashioned American, is the best part. No matter what time of day or night, you can always see an old fashioned Hot Fudge Sundae or Indian Pudding or Carrot Cake or Panna Cotta or Nutella Crèpe or Murder by Chocolate float by. Sometimes there are four spoons, sometimes one. It’s hard to pass up.
Noho Star is not quite the bargain it once was. Prices went up in 2008, and despite today’s recession, they are not going down. However, acutely conscious of everyone’s shrinking wallet, the restaurant is about to launch a new Supper Menu, from 10 p.m. to midnight. According to general manager Julia Lisowski, whose first job years ago was as a Noho Star bartender, “It will feature appetizers, drinks and entrees, for very reasonable prices.” When it’s launched, I’ll be the first one to try it out.
Now if only this quintessential New York hangout would open a branch in my neighborhood. But, hey, you can’t have everything.
The Noho Star
Type of Food: American with various other ethnic dishes
330 Lafayette Street
Romantic—3 Child Friendly–4
Girls’ Night Out—4 Solo Dining— 4
Business Dining—2 Visitors Welcome—4
Dress Code— Casual Budget—Moderate