Mondel’s is a reluctant celebrity. There on a bustling stretch of upper Broadway, the storefront of this venerable chocolate shop in Morningside Heights is understated, even aloof—Greta Garbo would have approved. To the uninitiated, Mondel Chocolates, as it is formally known, looks like it might not even be open for business: The neon sign in the shop’s single window obscures any glimpse of what lies within. But generations of Columbia students and faculty know better, and thanks to their devotion, the 68-year-old confectioner is thriving today.
That’s not to say that Mondel’s is modern, exactly. It doesn’t advertise or tweet, and the sales section of its Web site doesn’t work. The tiny shop can hold perhaps four customers at a time, in addition to a small bulwark of glass cases crammed with treats, each identified with a sign handwritten in Magic Marker. And instead of fleur de sel, ancho chile or açaí, Mondel’s chocolates taste only of top-notch vanilla, butter, toasted nuts and grown-up liqueurs.
The temptations include glossy orange creams, chewy turtles, molded chocolates and the house specialty: the hazelnut-layered “Figaro truffle.” The few shelves and cabinets around the store that aren’t crammed with confections are piled perilously high with empty gift tins for purchase, the better to bestow your selections on others, should you be so generous of spirit and iron of will. Or, if you prefer, Mondel’s will pack up your chocolates in gold-stamped cardboard boxes with a retro-chic panache that would make them an instant hit at the Brooklyn Flea, that jam-packed outdoor food and fashion market across the East River. Only, unlike the Flea, there’s no irony at Mondel’s.
This alchemical combination of history and high quality has garnered the shop fans in powerful places. The dean of Columbia Business School, Glenn Hubbard, regularly gives Mondel’s chocolates as gifts, as did the former executive director of the Miller Theatre at Columbia. One can imagine a Currier and Ives–adorned tin of Black Forest truffles on the desk of a captain of industry or a miniature chocolate fiddle being presented to a world-renowned violinist. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine once commissioned a replica of the church in Mondel’s finest. And, most famously, the late Katharine Hepburn had a standing order for turtles and butter crunch. Beer caramels need not apply.
We love finding chocolates by Essex Market’s Roni-Sue under the tree, but Miss Hepburn was onto something. What Mondel’s ultimately offers is the satisfaction of unironic longing. As one Columbia grad, herself the daughter of a Columbia professor, told me, “Growing up in a house where candy was banned, the treat of the year was the foil-wrapped chocolate ladybug I found in my Christmas stocking. I wandered into Mondel’s as a Columbia freshman and was stunned to see the ladybugs of my childhood in glorious profusion behind the counter. As far as I was concerned,
Santa Claus shopped at Mondel’s.” No wonder the guardians of Mondel’s legacy are content to keep their little shop a very sweet secret.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell