Another quintessential New York icon. Now, of course, there is a Starbucks or a Dunkin Donuts on almost any corner of any large American city, but in New York City in the fifties and sixties, there was only one that mattered. Now don’t get me wrong, there were thousands of privately owned coffee shops in Manhattan; in fact, they far outnumbered any so-called chain establishment. Each had its own particular character, determined in great part by the neighborhood it was in and the ethnicity of its owners. Now these are not to be confused with diners, which were plentiful as well, and offered menus of fifteen to twenty laminated pages where you could order anything from Moussaka to London Broil with your choice of vegetables on the side, and if you were lucky, a cup of soup as well all, for one low price. Coffee shops, on the other hand, had coffee; most times, donuts, and occasionally a signature sandwich or two. Which brings me to Chock full o’ Nuts (NOT Chock Full of Nuts). They were the gold standard of coffee shops, having been founded in 1926 and never out of favor, until unfortunately the late seventies.
They were small cafes, some with U shaped counters that you could huddle around and watch the waitresses do their thing, or stare at a fellow New Yorker across the way.
In my memory it was always winter; always cold out when Dad would take me to the Chock Full o’ Nuts- maybe it was after seeing a movie uptown, or maybe after the Thanksgiving Day parade, whenever, it was always cold, because I remember the windows always being steamed; the heat from the “heavenly coffee” and the people inside and the bitter cold wind outside resulting in this kind of cocoon, where you couldn’t see outside once you came in; you were enveloped in this oasis of warmth, hot fresh coffee and the smell of the best donuts to be had. To this day they are the best I have ever tasted, and recently I read an article online from the Donut makers association (yes there is such a thing) and they right up front stated that the powdered sugar covered whole wheat donut that was a staple at a Chock Full O’ Nuts was and is the gold standard for donut makers everywhere. I believe it. They must have been fried instead of baked cause they had this wonderful crunch to them. One of those and a cup of hot chocolate (I wasn’t allowed to have coffee yet) and yea, that was pretty much little kid heaven.
Besides the donuts, however, it also had another New York original: the still famous date nut bread and cream cheese sandwich. For a few cents, you could get two deliciously moist slabs of oven-baked date nut bread (made on premises of course) and a generous smear of soft cream cheese, and you would be good to go for hours. It is famous in New York history; more than one famous movie star has written about subsisting on Chock full o’ Nuts date nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches while trying to break into the business in the thirties in New York (Lauren Bacall for one).
It was a perfect example of the wonderful spiritual connection between food, New York culture, and childhood memory. There isn’t a Starbucks in the world that can evoke the same emotion.
The chain made a comeback in the city in 2010 but it didn’t take and many of the new locations closed quickly, not being able to keep up with all the competing hipster coffee shops that were beginning to populate the city.
And maybe that is how it should be.
It was of a different time; better in some ways.
Especially if you love a good donut.
Recently I baked a loaf of date nut bread, cut two perfect slices, slathered on Philadelphia Cream Cheese, poured myself a steaming hot cup of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, and just sat there transported back in time to that magical place.
All that was missing was the steamed windows.