Dive right in | Fanelli’s, SoHo


Simon Gage sings the praises of one of the last corners of real old school SoHo – Fanelli’s

Dive right in | Fanelli’s, SoHo

When it comes to shitholes taking up prime real estate, there’s nothing to touch Fanelli’s Café on the corner of Mercer and Prince in New York’s SoHo.

Hemmed in by Burberry and Helmut Lang and APC, with the Mercer Hotel across one street and a new Nespresso store across the other (so you know it’s smart!), Fanelli’s Café is the last great bastion of the dissolute, the work-shy, the old reprobates of New York City. By which I mean people who drink at lunchtime. And before lunchtime. And after. And instead of.

I mean people who drink at lunchtime. And before lunchtime. And after. And instead of

Even though it’s a dazzling crisp sunny day out there, it’s dark in here. No-one is on their phone and everyone has a drink, even if it’s only vodka. It’s the kind of place where the big bald Serbian barman, who turns out to be a boxer called Bob, with a tomato sauce-splattered jumper – it actually looks like cashmere – will break off from a conversation with a guy at the bar whose book he’s not got round to reading yet, to silence the room when he overhears a woman say that she has principles.

“Anyone else in here have principles?” he shouts. “No, right?” The woman in question – 34, red hair, pretty, a little hipsterish, working at an architecture firm round the corner – has stepped out for a lunchtime vodka and soda for lunch, “hold the lunch”.

“You want that now?” asks Bob when she orders. It’s his joke. Everyone wants it now. And they want it now with a lime in. As she’s stirring her drink with the lime wedge, the Serb comes over and tops it up with vodka. “From that guy there…” he says. An old man with a pint and a shot salutes her from round the corner of the sticky brown over-varnished bar.

“That doesn’t happen nearly often enough,” she remarks.

The reason the hipsterish woman with the vodka and soda has principles is that she won’t pay more than $1,000 on rent a month. She lives in Greenpoint, where she pays $800, but they’re threatening a rent hike. And she’s not in any mood to pay it.

“Gimme a shot of some kind of whiskey,” says some guy as he opens the door to the restroom. “Sure. I’ll bring it right through,” says the Serb.

If the rent in Greenpoint goes over $1,000 a month, pretty red-head is going to live in New Orleans. “You can drink in the street in New Orleans,” she says, stirring her vodka and soda wistfully. “But that’s not the reason.”

Fanelli's cafe

Fanelli’s in the 1970s, by Carl Burton

Fanelli’s Café – no one ever says the “café” bit, by the way; it’s just Fanelli’s – is a joint. The word “joint” was invented for places like this. Apparently, the place was originally a farmhouse owned by a freed slave back in the 1660s, when they gave freed slaves farmland on the outskirts of New Amsterdam so that the Red Indians would get them first. It became a farmers’ supply point and then, sometime around 1840, was built up into the five-storey building we ignore today.

At that point it evolved into a grocery store. The long dark sticky bar is actually original, grocery stores being where people went for a skinful in those days, and was, in the 19th century, leaned upon by those readying themselves for a thirsty night in the brothels that lined Mercer and Prince Streets.

It was in the 20s that the Fanellis took over, running the place as a speakeasy with impunity right through prohibition. It has apparently hosted sailors on shore leave and hookers between appointments, poets and artists and lovers and fighters – most of whom you can still smell to this day.

“No more beer, right?” he says to someone getting ready for their next beer

On the wall behind the bar is a broken-down, fancily decorated mirrored shelf unit thing that covers the whole wall. It’s the same dark brown as the bar, perhaps darker from back in the day when everyone smoked. Mirrored it may be, but you couldn’t actually see yourself in any of the allegedly reflective bits – it looks as if it hasn’t been dusted since the end of the Second World War – while the broken glass panels have been taped up with silver electrical tape and corrugated cardboard. When the Serb opens one of the dinky little cabinet doors you see that it goes through into a whole other room, if you were to crawl. That must have come in handy back when it was a speakeasy.

The ceiling is two shades away from fluorescent orange with old nicotine and the lighting is strictly filament, from the first time round. There are fairy lights along the top of the big wall cabinet thing. You imagine they went up at a time when someone gave a damn but said someone obviously stopped giving a damn before he got round to taking them down again.

The walls are covered with black and white photos of dead boxers, the tables have sticky red-checked vinyl coverings, and the big plastic padded menus offer classics from linguini with marinara sauce, via chowder served with crackers that come in a cellophane package, to burgers. Culinarily speaking, there are no detours.

To follow my lump of pasta in red sauce – actually right on the money – I order the New York cheesecake and coffee. Bob reckons I need a cognac with it. I don’t actually like cognac but he’s right, I do need one. Especially as it seems to be his treat.

“No more beer, right?” he says to someone getting ready for their next beer.

“I better go back,” says the pretty red-headed girl with principles as she finishes up her vodka, complete with the shot sent by the old man round the bar. “Well, I don’t have to. They like me.” C

Fanelli’s Café, 94 Prince St, New York, NY 10012, USA
+1 212-226-9412