Everyone who hangs out at Fanelli’s was a downtown kid, or their friends were. I realized this when I started a job in SoHo.
“Meet me at Fanelli’s,” I’d say to a college pal I was meeting after work.
“How about Fanelli’s?” I might suggest to the colleague I was grabbing drinks with.
None of them would’ve heard of it. And yet Fanelli’s has been ironed into the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets since 1874.
To be fair, that’s not entirely true. Certain coworkers knew of Fanelli’s for its soup kiosk, a popular grab-and-go lunch arm attached to the restaurant. Some of them were even steady wintertime fans of the vegetarian chili or the Moroccan lamb soup. But a post-work catch up at Fanelli’s? Never occurred to them. They’d never even been inside Fanelli’s proper.
I’d locate my friend at the bar awkwardly trying to find room for themselves or open the frosted glass doors and welcome my coworker in, then beeline for the host stand that doubles as a back bar stationed at the end of the front room—across from the bathrooms and 180 degrees southwest of the small TV nestled into a ceiling corner, which is usually screening an old movie.
“For two?” I’d ask, and the host would grab menus then gesture for us to follow them through the doorway to the parlor room, where only a few of the nine or so tables were occupied.
I would mostly go to Fanelli’s for drinks. Martinis, specifically. Sometimes a G&T when the mood strikes, or a Stella on tap if I’m taking it easy. If there’s a round two, fries are included in the re-up, because everyone should know the pleasure of chasing hot, crispy potato strips tossed in salt and drizzled in sugary ketchup with sips of chilled, briny alcohol after a hard day’s work. Also, two martinis on an empty stomach is a rookie move. I love to indulge people in this simple satisfaction by inviting them to Fanelli’s.
The best part of Fanelli’s is not the $10 price tag on a stiff drink, nor the unfussy burger or buffalo wings. It’s not the classic red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the worn-in white tiled floors, or even the service that’s just friendly enough. All of that is part of the charm, but what’s special is how you can walk right in, grab a table, and put in an order within minutes. You rarely have to wait. You do not have to order food. You can stay for as long as you like.
To know this is to exude the confidence of a cowboy entering a saloon, which is basically what Fanelli’s is. The official name is Fanelli Café, but no regular calls it that.
Fanelli’s belongs to downtown Manhattan. To the artists and gallerists of the ‘70s and the offspring that they raised in and around the area. 90% of the time I run into someone I know at Fanelli’s, they went to high school below 14th Street, same as me.
Michael Fanelli bought the place in 1922, gave it his name, and operated Fanelli’s as a speakeasy until the end of Prohibition. The current proprietor is Sasha Noe, the son of the architect Hans Noe who purchased the building in ‘82. Noe grew up in one of the neighborhood’s archetypal lofts and still resides there with his wife and children today.
You see? Downtown kid.
When the pandemic broke ground in NYC, Fanelli’s went dark. Like many eating and drinking establishments in the city, they pulled down their graffitied gates and locked up after service on March 16th, the final night that the city allowed dine-in service.
Two and a half months later, I came across this post while scrolling through my Instagram feed. “Soft takeout (food/booze) opening starting later today. There will be some kinks – But find us in the soup kiosk for now. Oh and shirts. We have white and orange shirts,” read the caption.
The close-up shot of the tee displayed FANELLI CAFE upside down, followed by the year—2020. In this twisted present, one thing is clear: Long live Fanelli’s.
Fanelli Cafe: 94 Prince St, New York