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Business of the Month: Elephant & Castle, 68 Greenwich Avenue

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If you know restaurateurs by the longevity of their restaurants, then George Schwarz was a very great restaurateur indeed. His first restaurant, which remains a local favorite, opened during the Nixon Administration. Its menu features items that have remained unchanged and popular for decades. Many members of its staff have been there just as long. And customers who used to visit as children, now visit grown up, with children of their own. The restaurant in question is Elephant & Castle (68 Greenwich Ave); and everything about it cements its status as a neighborhood classic. For that reason, it is our September 2022 Business of the Month.

George fled his native Frankfurt for France with his family as a child during WWII, before the persistent Nazi threat led the family to flee again, this time split up so as to increase their chances of survival. Survive, George did. And after the war, he made his way to the U.S. on his own to attend high school. He worked as a short-order cook at Woolworths’ during the year and as a waiter at an upstate New York resort during summers. An accomplished academic career after high school led Goerge throughout the country and back to Greenwich Village, where, now a doctor, he became the head of the Radiation Oncology Department at St. Vincent’s.

The neighborhood at the time, George observed, lacked dining options. So, in 1973, he decided to open an option himself, named Elephant and Castle.1

He did not have a grand concept behind the restaurant beyond that of serving the sort of well-prepared, delicious, simple food that he himself liked to eat. As it turns out, that was concept enough, because, as the saying goes, you know good cooks by their omelet; and the neighborhood soon learned that the restaurant’s omelet was very good indeed. So were its club sandwich, caesar salad, and elephant burger (mercifully not made from elephant meat).

The reason behind the consistently high-quality of even the restaurant’s most basic dishes was none other than George himself and his meticulous attention to detail. To the surprise of early staff members, George involved himself in all aspects of the restaurant’s operation, and that included recipe development and ingredient selection and sourcing. Long-time chef Gary Kuschnereit (there since ‘88) and long-time manager Bonnie Jenkins (also there since ‘88) recall the process:

What was different about George was how really specific he was: Why this blue cheese? Why this olive oil? When we were doing orders, it was one person delivering bacon, one delivering this, one delivering that. I thought you just called the big guy. George was the most demanding person I worked for. Others were demanding about getting the food out. George was demanding about quality.  

All these things took time. Really trying to perfect it. We would try things over and over again. We would taste things blindly and all write down our favorite. For the burger, for example, we tasted different ground meat combinations from multiple purveyors, different fat ratios… I remember we were on a panel. There were six of us. We all had to taste. I can’t even tell you how many. I think it was 40. You have to taste and spit it out, and write down and explain which and why. Almost every dish went through a tasting.

Through this process, the restaurant gradually developed the core of its menu. The process was gradual because many of the dishes emerged from chance culinary encounters made by George during his travels. He would often come back with ideas for new dishes or, if he couldn’t wait, mail the restaurant food pictures from abroad (back when that involved the actual licking of a stamp) and ask his staff to replicate them. In addition, chefs, as they earned George’s trust, were given freedom to develop their own specials and desserts. The result was a menu much like the one customers find at Elephant & Castle today, balanced between unchanging classics, like George’s Chicken Schnitzel and the Slovenian Wedding Crêpes, and specials that vary by season (or by day, as with the salmon special) based on what looks good at the farmer’s market.

As with the menu, so with the staff. George led the hiring process himself and, over the years assembled a team of people notable for its stability. Several recently retired employees, like Violeta, worked at Elephant & Castle since it opened; a couple of line cooks have been there for twenty years, as has manager Maria. Asked to explain such constancy in an industry notorious for its transience, Greg is quick to credit George.

George attracted very good people. You don’t mind working with them or for them. People stick around because they realized that the owner cared about them and about quality. Management is also very mindful and workers respond. We try to get the best from them not by breathing down their back, but by getting them to live up to the best account of themselves. And they seem to enjoy it. And it works!

While so much about Elephant & Castle has remained comforting in its steadiness, much of what surrounds the restaurant has not. When it opened, it was one of the only restaurants in the area. Now, it shares the block with half a dozen others. In 2010, one of the main sources of breakfast and lunch business, St. Vincent’s Hospital, shut down, sharply decreasing customer traffic during those shifts. In late 2016, George passed away, leaving the restaurant in charge of a trust and its management in the hands of long-time employees. And then, a few years later, COVID hit, forcing the business to close for almost four months and then reopen only partially. Bonnie remains appreciative of the staff and customers that allowed the restaurant to survive this most recent ordeal.

Bless the staff for soldiering through, and the people who sat outside and we had to be half open and it was 28 degrees. and they were sitting out there eating. Bless them! It shows an incredible spirit!

Like other restaurants, Elephant & Castle is still confronting the challenges of rising prices, staffing difficulties, and below-average tourism levels, but is slowly returning to normalcy. The menu will soon go back to its non-abbreviated form, and lunch service will resume. It is true that the restaurant will be carrying on without George at the helm; but the management still operates, as Gary puts it, “under the ghost of George.” Bonnie agrees:

We are trying to guide [the restaurant] in the same way that we believe George would have. We have this wonderful legacy, having worked with him for so many years and being surrounded by these people. The hope is that we can keep it the way that George would have wanted. He was an incredible mentor and person and had this way about him… We didn’t have to follow the trends, we were going to do what we believed was good food and to have a place that people could feel comfortable in. Food was special; but it didn’t have to be fancy in order for it to be really good. We should all have access to good food. We learned a lot from him, and we are proud to be together and accomplish what we do as a team.

For having embodied and continue to embody the late George Schwarz’s exacting standards and enlightened vision of hospitality and management, we are thrilled to name Elephant & Castle our September 2022 Business of the Month.

1 The restaurant’s name refers to a London traffic circle and transportation hub named after a three hundred year old bar that was destroyed during WWII. According to a debunked myth, the bar’s name was a dysphemistic transformation of Enfanta de Castile, Eleanore of Castile, whom the future Charles I intended to wed until his conversion to Catholicism became a condition to the marriage. Shortly after his ascent to the throne, Charles I declared war on Spain. As for George, he just liked the sound of “Elephant & Castle.”

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