Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Prince and the Pauper

I first tried Little Lad's while working in Lower Manhattan a few years back. A vegan colleague of mine who knew I had vegetarian-like tendencies recommended it as a lunch spot and kept trying to drag me with her. Wary of this card-carrying PETA member's intentions, I repeated declined. But she had managed to pique my curiosity. The place was run by a Seventh Day Adventist family from Maine and I had fond feelings for such establishments since my summer studying in Prague, where I became a regular at a Seventh Day Adventist-run vegetarian eatery called Country Life where I would anticipate walking through the door to the cheerful daily greeting, "dobry den!" Recalling the delicious buffet where I'd first discovered a love for carob and buckwheat (not together), one day I snuck out during lunch to try the famous $4 buffet at Little Lad's.

Tucked beneath street level in one of the office buildings on Broadway, Little Lad's is like an old dingy lounge with an outdated 1970's feel. It offers an array of soups, salads and veggie-rich entrees which you can pile on your plate cafeteria style. Before leaving you must wait in line to pay for the all-you-can-eat goodness. Captive as you wait on line, they subject you to graphic videos detailing the cruel treatment of animals and advocating why eating an animal-free diet is the only humane thing to do. The images were jarring and I remember trying to look away, instead fingering through the goodies on sale near the checkout - most notably Little Lad's popcorn, the pride of their business in Maine. I escaped relatively unscathed and returned there for lunch a few more times, even bringing some friends who I knew would appreciate the experience. Each time I went I was amazed to see how crowded this secret subterranean site was with Wall Street types. So when a friend of mine started a new finance-related corporate job Lower Manhattan last week I couldn't resist. This friend, whom I will call "Derrick," had just moved from Seattle back to New York and the basis of our friendship was an ongoing joke about how I was a "dirty hippie" while he pretended not to be. If not for our mutual love for The Godfather we would never have been friends in the first place, but over time we became regular movie buddies and would split dinners, which meant he had to tolerate my food intolerances. If he was not the one to coin the term glutard, then he was surely the one who introduced it to me. Over time he softened and was even sensitive to my dietary constraints - probably because a ridiculous number of his friends were equally glutarded. So last week when he declared on Facebook that he was now working Downtown, I innocently suggested he try Little Lad's for lunch, that it would remind him of Seattle.

Then I got the call. I saw it was "Derrick" and was curious what he wanted midday, and when I picked up he shouted something like, "you sent me to a hippie den!" He proceeded to describe his lunchtime foray to Little Lad's where he didn't care for the conservatively dressed home-schooled owners' daughters' tirades about subjects ranging from misguided American eating patterns to, not surprisingly perhaps, the obsolescence of school. He was shocked to hear these young girls - who instead of being in school were working at their parents' restaurant - go on and on about how to eat. He said they had some silly phrase: "breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper." I was amused to hear him saying this, having sat through a lecture last week where my instructor recited the same dictum, not the least bit ironically. And though he was bewildered by the number of people eating there, he admitted that the food was delicious. Not only did it remind him of Seattle, but he met somewhere there who was from his old neighborhood, Capitol Hill. We laughed about that and said our goodbyes. I later noticed that before he called he'd actually sent me a text message: "At your hippie vegan propaganda place. Videos and everything. They won't get me!"

Approaching the end of my second year in Seattle, I feel like less and less of a New Yorker. But there are still moments when I can beam with pride for knowing some of the insider secrets. Like the hidden subway station under City Hall. The tiny community garden on Jane Street. The Vanderbuilt Motorway and the greenway to Fort Totten. Hidden gems. Like Little Lad's, which I'm happy to learn has survived the decline of Wall Street. It's reassuring that there's still a place in Manhattan where you can eat like a prince and not leave a pauper.


  1. Very entertaining. Makes me want to visit NY.

  2. Rebecca: I work in the building and have gone in twice -- only to be too scared to stay for the food due to the cultish vibe... Send me a text when your friend "Derrick" goes again; there's safety in numbers!