“Sometimes you just want a burger or a grilled cheese – but not just any burger or grilled cheese,” New York Magazine proclaimed from the pages of its 101 Best Cheap Eats issue – and, dangit, they were right. One brisk, blustery night in January required just this sort of sustenance, so Jon and I set off from Krista’s Union Square-ish apartment in search of No. 72 on the magazine’s list, Westville.
After pounding pavement for nearly a mile and a half, we breezed right on by the inconspicuous storefront before realizing we had just passed it. We doubled back and ducked into the windless respite of the burgundy-curtained entry, which opened onto a well-lit, narrow dining area probably 12 feet across and 30 feet deep before the kitchen took over the space. Small square tables for two lined the perimeter, five of them aligned along a long booth bench on the wall. A table stood in the front window – that one might have seated four – and another was pushed against the wall opposite the booth, below a set of chalkboards enumerating the day’s specials and a particularly extensive market menu of vegetables. Empty chairs filled in the spaces along the wall, providing seating for waiting patrons.
You could call it cramped, you could call it intimate, but neither would be entirely accurate. Westville falls somewhere in between. I had to push the table next to ours aside to access the booth seat on the wall (as did the two couples who arrived soon after us); but even though we were rubbing elbows with our neighbors, the atmosphere still allowed for personal, private conversation. (In the event of an awkwardly quiet dinner partner, there is abundant opportunity for eavesdropping, if you’re so inclined – I myself enjoyed the musings of the film nuts to the right, though not so much the bickering coworkers to my left). A mix of low-key, offhandedly hip music set the stage for standard American fare done one better in this tidy, toasty West Village charmer.
The menu is mouth-watering even before you consider the dozen or so specials on offer on a given night, making decisions particularly difficult. Most American/eclectic restaurants will offer a grilled cheese sandwich, burgers of various meats, and some riff on a Reuben – but how many sit-down restaurants offer a hot dog platter? (And, no, T.G.I. Friday’s doesn’t count.) Westville has not one, not two, but three options for frankfurter fanatics: Hebrew National, vegan, or Niman Ranch’s “fearless franks,” all natural, all beef hot dogs. This place is serious, and seriously awesome.
Various salads – to which you can add chicken, steak, salmon or walnuts – and enticing soups and appetizers – among them macaroni & cheese with smoky bacon and crab cakes – lead off the menu of nonstop hits. Entrees include char-grilled Newport steak and beer-battered fish & chips, and tuna and chicken salad sandwiches and a codfish po’boy round out the sandwich selections. The night we went, a whole brook trout with mixed greens went for $17 and chicken or lamb sausage served over vegetarian chili went for $12 on the specials board. A litany of intriguing vegetable dishes called out from the blackboard: classic collard greens, garlic or pesto mashed potatoes, sautéed cherry tomatoes, roasted butternut squash, beets with walnuts, snow peas with sesame and ginger, cauliflower with dijonnaise, Asian-style bok choy, and lemon-grilled asparagus. And that’s probably half of the list.
But we ordered none of these things. No, we got what we came for: burgers and grilled cheese. Jon ordered the grilled cheese and added bacon atop their blend of cheddar and gouda cheeses. For my part, I can rarely resist a turkey burger, and Westville’s seemed particularly alluring – somehow appending the modifier “cast-iron” to the description gave off the impression that this would be an exceptional turkey burger. I ordered mine topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and smoked gouda, with a side of mixed greens.
To our delight, our meals were indeed exceptional. Both sandwiches were built on a Portuguese muffin – sort of like an English one, only without the nooks, crannies or sourdough-y kick. Everything was made with top-quality ingredients, from the shredded gouda atop my burger to the golden-toasted muffin to the fresh, vibrantly colored mixed greens. My only complaint is that the 8 oz. burger had to be so thick to fit within the circumference of the muffin that I could hardly open my mouth wide enough to take a bite. Yet somehow I soldiered through, and left nought but a sandwich pick and a few stray crumbs on my plate. It's my understanding that the grilled cheese, served with fries, was similarly delicious, but I was too involved in my own dinner to steal some of Jon’s.
After we paid the bill, which rang up in the ballpark of $30 for the two of us, we suited up for the cold and ambled north on Bleeker Street to that bastion of snacktime hiptitude, the much-hyped Magnolia Bakery. Last year I had been to Billy’s Bakery –somehow related to Magnolia, as I understand it – and split a couple of their picture-perfect cupcake confections. The buttercream frosting, rendered in pillows of soft pastels, was the desserts’ best feature, but couldn’t mask the dry cake underneath.
Magnolia’s goods suffered from much the same problem. The “special” red velvet cupcakes caught my eye this time, so I nabbed one of those and a ginger molasses cookie (I’ve yet to find one of those anywhere to beat Whole Foods’ version) for me and a banana pudding cup for Jon. (Actually, the ginger cookie I finished before even reaching the cash register – it was uncharacteristically small for a commercial cookie, if you can classify it as such.)
If you are at all familiar with red velvet cake and are at all a fan of it, do not go to Magnolia’s and try their cupcake. You will only be disappointed – and out $1.75. The cream cheese icing tasted like nothing, and was piled on so thick that it seemed they were consciously trying to cover up the deficient cake below. Jon was similarly disappointed in his banana pudding (though whose could match Sylvia’s?).
My advice for a post-Westville sweet? Stock up on the ginger molasses cookies – or better yet, if you’ve got a little extra cash, stick around Westville for a slice of homemade pie, or maybe a fresh-baked cookie the size of your face. It might cost a little more, but I doubt if anything Westville has the culinary capacity to disappoint like Magnolia’s surface-over-substance cupcakery.