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Oral History: Dining in Greenwich Village with Mimi Sheraton

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

“Food was always a big subject in the family,” recalls acclaimed restaurant critic and food writer Mimi Sheraton. Her father was a fruit and produce merchant in the old Washington Market and her mother was an ambitious cook in the house, so “there was lots of talk about food, lots of criticism at the table, and lots of going to restaurants, local places in Brooklyn and special places in Manhattan.” That background would serve her quite well later in her life, when in the 1970s she started reviewing restaurants under cover of a good disguise and writing about cuisine in New York City and beyond for New York and more famously for The New York Times

Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Sheraton has lived in Greenwich Village since 1945, shortly after falling in love with the neighborhood while attending NYU, and in the same West Village brownstone since 1965. In the oral history Village Preservation conducted with her in November 2019, she reminisces about some special food-centric memories from her earliest years in the community.

For example, there’s Ed Winston’s Tropical Bar and Grill at 21 East 8th Street, where NYU students “went to drink beer and so on on Friday night.” Following one hot summer day with her then-husband Bill Sheraton spent hunting for an apartment in the neighborhood, they stepped into the cool bar and ordered a sandwich and a drink. “Then we said to the bartender, ‘You know any empty apartments?’ He said, ‘Well, Old Man Sittinham on Ninth Street has one.’ We said, ‘Hold our food, we’ll be back.’ We ran out, we found Old Man Sittinham,” and got their first place in the Village. The one-room basement apartment at 7 East 9th Street rented $65 a month, an amount her father called “insane”; the couple stayed there for the next six years.

24 Fifth Avenue, the one-time Fifth Avenue Hotel

There was also 24 Fifth Avenue — then the Fifth Avenue Hotel, today a condo building — that “had, in summer, a wonderful sidewalk café” and the Amen Corner, a great bar that was one of several popular local establishments for the literary crowd. She went to other elegant sites, including the Number One Bar at 1 Fifth Avenue and a “very expensive” French restaurant at the Lafayette, a hotel on 9th Street and University Place.

“I was always interested in restaurants, but I couldn’t afford some of those places” on her $40-a-week salary, she noted. “I went to a lot of those restaurants and I ordered the chopped steak, which was the cheapest thing on the menu. I never understood what anybody saw in those restaurants! But that’s because I was eating chopped steak! I had more of a meal at each of those places eventually, but that was a very fancy part of the Village then.”

Sheraton started reviewing restaurants for the Village Voice beginning in the 1960s, focusing on Village restaurants: Rocco’s on Thompson Street, Eddie’s Aurora on 3rd Street near MacDougal Street, where a bottle of Soave Bolla and linguine with clam sauce were each 95¢. Across the street was a charming restaurant called Mother Bertolotti’s, now called Volare [closed in 2021], “that’s always been Italian. There’s a restaurant where there has always been a restaurant, partly because the plumbing and the gas are in, and they can get a permit for the location.”

Over the years, Sheraton has witnessed not only numerous restaurants and trends for dining out coming and going, but also a metamorphosis in how Villagers cook at home. She noted how much the options available at our local food stores have grown: “When I moved into the Village, it was almost the year of the first Balducci’s … on that stretch between Christopher and Sixth Avenue where Eighth becomes Greenwich. That was the first Balducci’s store. And until that, you didn’t see six kinds of lettuce, or four kinds of mushrooms anywhere, and so all of these things became available, and that was great to write about.” 

The original Balducci’s location in Greenwich Village, date unknown

That growth continued during her earliest days at the Times in the late ’70s. Dean & DeLuca “brought in cheeses and all kinds of things that no one had ever heard of. So there was a lot of good copy around, and a lot of interest in buying those things because of the food writing, and publicity, and television, and cooking, and the news of restaurants. There was sort of a fever about it, which still continues.”

Explore Sheraton’s other culinary memories from her seven-plus decades in Greenwich Village and more in our oral history.

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