The City Bakery is a Cosmopolitan Cafeteria

Tourists and transplants peering through City Bakery’s floor-to-ceiling windows at mac-and-cheese and chocolate chip cookies might momentarily think they’re back in Kansas—and back in third grade, specifically in the school cafeteria. But there’s no tear in the time-space continuum on this otherwise unremarkable stretch of West 18th Street. The foods of your middle-America grammar-school lunch—or, rather, sophisticated spins on those kiddie classics—are alive and well in the here and now.

While he may not possess a time machine, Maury Rubin, who opened the aptly named City Bakery back in 1990, does wield a magical wand: one that transforms the iconic ingredients of American childhood into epicurean eats for urban adults. Harry Potter would be jealous.

At first glance the menu seems cribbed from a grammar school cafeteria, but Rubin’s riffs on kids’ classics are cooked up with a decidedly urban adult audience in mind. He’s given the iconic— yet so often less-than-delicious—foods of American childhood a metropolitan makeover, maintaining their original identity in name only, and serves up fine fare fit for the savviest New Yorkers. Graphic designers and advertising types literally line up for hot chocolate—before squeezing around tiny tables. It’s a gastro caf, with Martha Stewart as lunch lady.

Take the salad bar. No ho-hum romaine and sliced cucumbers here. Instead, ruby radicchio is piled alongside a coral streak of wild salmon; chickpea salad and roasted heirloom cauliflower appear to have been lifted from their rightful place atop fine china (with white-tablecloth prices to match).

The hot food stations trump the typical flabby fried fish and rubber chicken, with more than a dozen savory items created daily by chef Ilene Rosen, who has been at the stoves since 1994. That means seasonal savories like cornmeal-crusted catfish, roasted root vegetables spiked with mint, and a celebrated super-sharp mac-and-cheese at a per-pound price that could burn through even an adult’s allowance.

But it’s the (barely sweet) sweets that showcase the utter genius of Rubin’s rubric. The handcrafted marshmallows—based on an old recipe, they are the definition of plush—rightfully merit the adjective “artisanal” and bear about as much resemblance to the bagged supermarket stuff as Barack Obama does to his distant cousin Dick Cheney. Order the confection alone (as they do in Paris) or atop Rubin’s lionized, diet-bedamned, barely sweet hot chocolate. No sugary powder stirred into tepid water here, but a druggy, dopamine-intense drink that, if left to cool, would likely solidify back into a bar. To sit at a tiny coin-shaped table is to observe a population of famously jaded adults gazing into their cups in earnest delight.

City Bakery’s chocolate chip cookies— which emerge from the ovens every 30 minutes— are the most popular in the city, but other options are just as habit-forming: pillowy oatmeal raisins that banish any notion of health, a cocoa-colored melted chocolate chip, napkin-staining buttery shortbreads studded with cocoa nibs, fat and crumbly peanut butters, an after-school snack from Arcadia.

Rubin, who departed an Emmy-winning career in television to train in French bakeries, internalized the principles of Paris’s preeminent pastries—but back home worked not to recreate them but rather to reinvent of the foods native to our shores. Witness the pretzel croissant—a buttery, billowy, salt-and-sesamekissed experiment that epitomizes Rubin’s genius, teasing apart the DNA of the ubiquitous, not-so-tasty street snack, and weaving in genetics from France’s best bakeries.

Sure, you can find plenty of other places in the 212 area code serving fetishized, super-sized comfort food and tarted-up classics like mac-and-cheese, s’mores and even milk and cookies to those hungry for a double shot of sugar and nostalgia. But City Bakery did it first and, almost 20 years later, they still do it best. Here meat loaf and mashed potatoes feel not like a gimmick but rather like honest art—an inspired riff on our nation’s classics, made from the best ingredients by people who care. It’s an eatery cut from the same cloth as Union Square Café; even City Bakery’s hot chocolate bears next to nothing in common with its silly, sugary would-be relation sold to out-of-towners a few blocks away at Max Brenner.

For while City Bakery could never be mistaken as Parisian— despite kick-ass croissants—it’s also admittedly less American than Applebee’s or even the Olive Garden. Visitors from Middle America might not even recognize the urbane, utopian take on the national diet. But for a place serving such quintessentially quirky New York fare, it boasts a singularly anti–New York schedule: It closes at 7 p.m. every weeknight. Even more of a shocker: no wi-fi.

That adherence to the old-school is probably something Rubin picked up in France while mastering the marriage of butter and flour. But he also picked up seasonal sensibilities and has put Greenmarket ingredients on the menu since long before “locavore” entered the lexicon. Today he laughs recalling the stricken “What do you mean I haven to wait another 11 months?” from a woman who had just devoured one of his strawberry tarts. Rubin holds us in an in-between space, balancing intense indulgence tempered with ecological restraint.

He keeps himself there, too. “Ninety percent of the food I’ve eaten in the last 20 years was here.” (On the rare occasions he dines elsewhere, it’s early. Really early. “Like a 90-year-old Jewish man in Florida,” chuckles Rubin, who looks about half that age, and who says sits in a restaurant corner, alone, savoring a few minutes of silence before entertaining his daily deluge of guests.)

And though he boasts three successful businesses, and one more en route in Southern California, Rubin smiles wryly when we ask what he’d say to aspiring restaurateurs in the current economy: “Try therapy first.”

It’s a case of actions speaking louder than words: not only is Rubin still expanding, he’s doing it conscientiously, with a kind of idealism that might seem foolish if it hadn’t proved so effective. Green leanings—he’s been an environmentalist since, as a kid in Baltimore, he was shocked by the state of the Chesapeake Bay— have dominated his most recent expansions: His two “top-to-bottom green” Birdbath bakeries opened in 2006, and this fall he will take over (or as he sees it, “curate,” since he will do little to alter its façade) the Vesuvio bakery, the 86-year-old SoHo institution.

And honoring what came before him? Well, that’s just downright gentlemanly. But that’s likely because Rubin has become a New York City institution in his own right, complete with realestate heartbreak. For its first 11 years, City Bakery called 17th Street home, just a scone’s throw from the present-day location. When the clamor for cocoa outgrew his 1,600-square-foot shop, he had his eye on a space on Union Square West, but a new little company in town beat him to it: Starbucks.

No matter. The bright, open, split-level, 7,500-square-foot space he found on West 18th suits him and his clientele just fine: it’s a top spot for people-watching, and, while a seat can be hard to find, he says table hogging’s never been an issue: The culture mimics that of the street.

“People police themselves,” says Rubin, who, like so many proprietors of world-class cafés, is a master observer of human nature. “First date to breakup, we’ve seen everything. No one’s birthed a child here, but I’d say short of that we’ve seen all of life’s higher and lower moments.” He shrugs. “This has always been a neighborhood place.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell