In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
“It’s hard to think of a better example than the Hungarian Pastry Shop of what makes one love a city, a neighborhood, a place,” says the poet and writer Rachel Hadas. “That ‘what’ is hard to define but easy to recognize and to remember. It’s a combination: the location and the people, the coffee and the weather, the croissants and the conversations.”
Hadas has been coming to this small coffee shop on Amsterdam Avenue and 111th Street, opposite St. John the Divine, New York’s grandest cathedral, since the late ’80s. In those early years, after she dropped her son off for school nearby, she visited almost every day; now, it’s usually a couple of times a month. And she is not alone in her affection for the place. The Hungarian Pastry Shop, with its red-and-white striped awning and rickety metal chairs, has been beloved for decades by writers as well as Columbia and Barnard students and professors who come to eat its rich cakes and cookies, drink the “Hungarian coffee” — a sweet and strong drip coffee with almond flavoring and a mountain of whipped cream — and occasionally scrawl their politics on the bathroom walls. The graffiti got so bad at one point that the cafe’s owner, Philip Binioris, repainted the whole room. “The discourse had become aggressive and ugly,” he explains. “People are capable of more enlightened debate.”
There’s no Wi-Fi here, and the lighting in the long, narrow room is not great, but the coffee refills are free and the pastries large and sweet. In the glass-front counter near the entrance to the shop are Dobos tortes (sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with hard caramel), Sacher tortes, strudels and Hamantaschen, almost all made in house. But pastries notwithstanding, this place is about the atmosphere; it has the kind of vibe people once found in the cafes of Paris or Heidelberg or, indeed, Budapest. You hang out here, you attain a kind of intellectual street cred. Ask any Columbia alumna about it and you’re sure to unleash a torrent of postgrad nostalgia.
It’s also a neighborhood place where local families and kids linger at the tables and eat up the apricot Linzer tarts and pains au chocolat, and it has remained much the same since 1976, when Philip’s parents, Peter and Wendy Binioris, bought the shop from the Hungarian couple who had opened it in 1961. According to Philip, there was a large Hungarian and Czech community in the area in those days. “My father started working as a busboy at Symposium, another restaurant, in the early 1970s, after emigrating from Greece,” he says. Later, Peter became a waiter at Symposium and eventually, with his wife, took over the cafe. Hadas recalls asking Wendy and Peter years ago how they managed to run the place with four children under the age of 6, including Philip. “Wendy replied, ‘I have no idea. I can’t remember.’” But manage they did. “The family seemed harmonious,” says Hadas, “and for countless denizens of Morningside Heights, the pastry shop was always a friendly place of refuge and peace.”
Philip worked here after school from the time he was 13, and in 2012, when his father retired, he took it over. As he chats one morning when I visit, he stops to wave at a friend, then hurries to make a cappuccino. “It’s our daily customers who make us what we are,” he says. “They really love the place, and they keep us honest. It is a common occurrence for us to have someone walk up to the counter and tell us, ‘It’s exactly the same as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.’ That’s a big deal in a city that changes so quickly.” Hadas agrees: “It’s the way it changes constantly but also remains reliably and reassuringly the same, so that the very changes are part of what one expects. Philip, whom I remember as a small boy, is now a tall, bespectacled father. Waitresses come and go. Children grow up; Cathedral School and Columbia and Barnard students graduate.”
Andrew Delbanco, the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia and the author of the 2018 book “The War Before the War,” recalls the cafe as a snug shelter on winter mornings, one where he and his wife, Dawn, would stop after they dropped their daughter, Yvonne, off at school. “Back in the ʼ80s and early ʼ90s, the Hungarian became a sort of writing studio for me — a place where one could somehow be sociable and focused on work at the same time,” Andrew explains. “I wasn’t the only writer who developed a language of nods and waves that signaled to friends whether one was there to work or to schmooze.” Whereas other regulars relied on the caffeine, in Andrew’s case, “I became completely dependent on the almond horn pastry — the crunchier the better — which got my working day off to a great start.”
This little pastry shop community is emblematic of an intensely tribal New York tradition where everyone is interconnected if only by virtue of being here over the years. Some regulars share a love for the cakes, others are joined by lives that revolve around the nearby university. I know a publisher who remembers the place with fondness from her Barnard years — how she was young there, how she waited for a boyfriend, how she wrote her thesis at one of the tables. “I had memorable coffee hours here with the poets Jane Cooper and, later, Rachel Wetzsteon, both of whom lived around the corner on 110th Street,” says Hadas.
On a winter afternoon, I’m sitting at a table in the cafe eating a pastry with Yvonne and Dawn Delbanco. Yvonne, now 35, went to school with Philip Binioris’s sister Sofia. “Their father would allow us to ‘help’ make cookies — I think it was the raspberry and apricot Linzer tarts,” Yvonne says. “We were actually allowed to sell some of our better-looking creations.” Hadas, who is Dawn’s best friend, can recall a whole world passing through the pastry shop. “It has been a regular meeting place for endless conversations about children, parents, husbands, school, literature, art, life and death,” she says. “In the spring of 2019, my husband and I made the acquaintance of Simone, the infant daughter of Yvonne Delbanco and her wife, Emilia Hermann. Where else would we meet but at the pastry shop?”
Philip stops by to chat for a moment and then directs my attention to the wall across from the pastry counter, featuring many books at least partly written in the cafe. There are novels by Julie Otsuka (2002’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” and 2011’s “Buddha in the Attic”) and Rivka Galchen (2008’s “Atmospheric Disturbances”), short stories by Nathan Englander (1996’s “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 nonfiction work “Between the World and Me.” “What I love most about the wall is the variety,” Philip says. “Just like the city we live in, there is a little bit of everything, from self-help to academic works, philosophy to children’s books, fiction and nonfiction — award winners and not, they all belong, and they are all part of our community.”