Features

The Places You Called Your Own

KORONET PIZZA

Broadway between 110th and 111th Streets

With its tomato-red storefront and unassuming interior, Koronet Pizza may look like an everyday pizza joint, but Columbians know better. This is a shop that trades in slices of epic proportion, colossal triangles of cheesy-greasy deliciousness that could more rightly be described as slabs. (The pies measure up to a whopping 32 inches across.) Koronet has always seemed custom made for its most frequent clientele: students looking to feed the hunger that hits after a long night out. Walking back to campus on Broadway, the overlit interior shines like a beacon and the smell of just-out-of-the-oven pizza overpowers all other senses. The quality might be a source of debate, but that’s beside the point; in those moments, Koronet delivers salvation. As for the price, a jumbo slice has ticked up over the years — from 75 cents to today’s $5.25 — but in the end it’s always a bargain.


THE HUNGARIAN
PASTRY SHOP

Amsterdam between 110th and 111th Streets

The Hungarian Pastry Shop is that rare spot where the dreamy fantasy of college life meets reality. And in a city that changes so frequently, the shop’s unvarying nature is one of its charms: affable, intellectual, bohemian, inviting. Generations of Columbians know its red-and-white striped awning and colorful outside murals. Inside, the aroma of coffee hangs in the air, and the pastry case beckons with flaky and fruit-filled old-world delights. “Hungarian” cultivates a deliberate disconnectedness; the space is dim and cozy, and there’s no Wi-Fi. Students can be quietly social or quietly quiet, reading or studying for hours on end. A wall of book covers pays tribute to the many writers who’ve called themselves regulars. The shop marks its 60th anniversary this year — it’s both an NYC and a neighborhood institution — but age is just a number; it long ago became timeless.


THE WEST END

Broadway between 113th and 114th Streets

Everyone knows there was a bar at Columbia called The West End. Its history verges on legend, the place where Beat Generation brothers Jack Kerouac ’44 and Allen Ginsberg ’48 talked, drank and wrote late into the night. Jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie played there when it hosted live music. And the leaders of the Spring ’68 protests made their plans in the back room. But though an aura of romance hung in the air, The West End’s day-to-day reputation was as a place to relax and unwind. You could do a crossword puzzle or play pinball while drinking a beer, and because it welcomed students from all walks of campus life, you were liable to come in anytime and find someone you knew. The West End opened in 1911 and closed for the first time in 1988; several iterations tried to keep the spirit alive, until its final last call in 2014.


MOON PALACE

Broadway between 111th
and 112th Streets

The allure of Moon Palace, a 26-year Broadway fixture, didn’t come from any conventional notions of good atmosphere. The inside of the workaday Chinese restaurant was plain and dark, and the Shanghai menu is as likely to elicit memories of blandness as of excellence and genuine flavors. (It was in fact authentic, and cooked by the same chef for its entire run.) But what Moon Palace offered was a place to feel at home, where the food was inexpensive and plentiful, and the waiters treated you like family. Regulars were gifted the prized cabbage appetizer, an off-menu secret, and after eating you could linger for hours. The restaurant was a favorite of both students and faculty, and often saw the two sharing a table. Paul Auster ’69, GSAS’70 borrowed the poetic name for his 1989 novel, a prescient tribute for a landmark that closed just two years later.


MAMA JOY’S

Broadway at 113th Street

For the uninitiated, Mama Joy’s stood for nearly five decades where Milano Market is now. It occupied half of Milano’s space — a tiny, four-aisle deli of fancy cheeses and beer, and made-to-order sandwiches that had the students lining up at lunch. (Alumni can attest, the roast beef was swoon-worthy.) The ingredients were fresh, and notably, all the food was cooked and prepared in-house. The magic behind the counter came courtesy of Lillian Estrin, the matriarch of the Russian immigrant family that opened the shop in 1954. They inherited their signage from the prior tenants and could only afford to change the “a” in the original name, “Jay’s Self-Service.” Over time Estrin became “Mama Joy” to her customers, and the family eventually changed the shop’s name to match. When it closed in 2000, The New York Times sent a reporter; the Columbia community knew it had lost an institution.


SYMPOSIUM

113th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam

These days, Symposium feels easy to overlook. The restaurant is less trafficked than it used to be and feels a world apart from — well, everything. But walk down 113th Street, under the blue awning and a few steps down, and you’ll find a brick-walled enclave that has earned its lengthy neighborhood stay. For many College alums, it’s where they first tried authentic Greek food. And its philosophy, as Plato would appreciate, is in its name: to be a place for eating, drinking and lively conversation. (The waiters have been told never to take away a plate or deliver a check until asked.) Symposium was founded by Yanni Posnako, an artist from Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1969; his distinctive work still adorns the menu and walls. Obsessed with angels, Posnako vowed to paint 100,000 in his lifetime. You can also spot one outside The Hungarian Pastry Shop, which he once jointly owned.


V&T RESTAURANT
& PIZZERIA

Amsterdam between 110th and 111th Streets

V&T or Koronet? The question is often up for neighborhood foodie debate, but there’s room for more than one slice-slinging mainstay — and clearly each has its place. Founded in 1945, V&T is the venerable elder statesman. Generations of CC-ers know it as the place they went for a sit-down meal — maybe pizza (eggplant was king!), but maybe chicken parmigiana or penne alla vodka, or whatever classic Italian fare caught their fancy. The restaurant was perfect for dates and celebrations and everything in between; no matter how many people were in your party, there was always a table that fit. Brothers and bakers Vincent and Tony Curcurato opened V&T shortly after returning from WWII. The decor has changed over the years, but the gondolier on the menu’s cover still sings of Venice. Returning alums have been heard to say the pizza doesn’t taste quite as good as they remember; but no matter. They’ll always have the memories.


TOM’S RESTAURANT

Broadway at 112th Street

Seinfeld fans snap photos outside and Suzanne Vega BC’81 immortalized it in song, but for College students, Tom’s is simply their neighborhood diner. The same Greek-American family has presided at the cash register since the 1940s, with a staff that mothers or jokes around with you depending on the day. The atmosphere is decidedly no-fuss, made for regulars who know their order without opening the menu. Tom’s serves the kind of comfort food that undergrads consume in spades: cheese fries, Broadway shakes, eggs any way you like them. And in its everyday-ness, it manages to suit almost every occasion, a place to satisfy late-night cravings, to study (or to feed a weary soul when the studying is done), to take a first date or to nurse the first-year blues. Alums speak fondly of the “fortress of affection” that was longtime waitress Betty Gillespie, and of the Tom’s badge of honor: when a waiter tells the cook, “Make it nice!”