by JIM KNIPFEL
December 9, 2018
Buffa’s is gone now. Buffa’s has been gone a long time. But before it was gone, Buffa’s had been there a long time, too, on Prince just off the corner of Lafayette, on the northern edge of a fast-shrinking Little Italy. And with the exception of a few decorations and one late expansion, for the roughly half-century it was around, the family-owned diner remained essentially unchanged. And for about three years there, it was my home away from work.
When it came time for my lunch break on my first day as the New York Press’s receptionist in May of 1995, I took the elevator down to the ground floor of the Puck Building, stepped outside, and turned left, heading south on Lafayette. I just wanted to find someplace I could grab a sandwich. Although the Keith Haring store was there across the street, the Lower East Side hadn’t yet made that mad dash for the slick, swank and empty. It wouldn’t be long before it did, but at the time there was still a pleasant and comfortable grubbiness to it. Little Italy was still a viable neighborhood, though not what it once was. Head east and you could still find plenty of Jewish delis apart from Katz’s. I figured it wouldn’t take me long to find a place to grab a quick lunch, and it didn’t.
After crossing Piss Alley (as it had been dubbed for obvious reasons) and walking half a block further south, I spotted exactly what I was looking for. This wasn’t one of those hipster retro joints that always left me feeling nauseated and homicidal. The lettering of the electric sign stretching the length of the storefront told me immediately that sign had been there untouched since at least 1953. When I spotted the autographed photo of Paul Williams taped in the window to the right of the glass front door, I knew this must be the place.
There was a refrigerator case to the left as you stepped in, which held bottles of soda and juice and beer. The floor was the standard black and white checkerboard tile. The standard Formica lunch counter with the standard row of fixed red leatherette stools stretched the length of the small joint, and a sheet of standard textured tin covered the wall behind the counter. Four or five square Formica tables lined the windowed wall opposite the counter, with one smaller table tucked in against the back wall near the kitchen door.
A cadaverous, rat-faced man in a white apron was working the register at the near end of the counter by the refrigerator cases. In contemporary terms I’d say he resembled Vladimir Putin, but shorter and more Italian. I would soon learn this was Johnny Buffa (what a perfect name for a flunky in a Thirties gangster picture), third-generation patriarch of Buffa’s Deli. The two waitresses working the lunch counter (and Buffa’s only two waitresses) were Marie, a nervous, slightly dotty woman in her late fifties with a graying blond beehive and cat’s eye glasses, and Adele, a vibrant, flamboyant woman in her early forties with dark hair and a year-round suntan. Both were connected to the Buffa family in some way, though I never quite figured out the specifics. I think Marie was someone’s aunt and Adele someone’s ex-wife, but I could be wrong.
The only thing interfering with my immediate Edward Hopper fantasies were the framed posters for Down by Law and Silence of the Lambs hanging behind the counter, and the Golden Globe award on a shelf behind the register. But as I would also learn soon enough, there were reasons for those.
I took a seat at the counter, ordered a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a beer. Then I got another beer. It wasn’t crowded, and there was no music or TV blasting. The only sounds were the clinking of plates and glasses and cutlery mixed in with the wash of New York voices. The burger and fries were pleasantly greasy, and the place as a whole had no air of being anything more than exactly what it was and had always been. Apart from taking my order and calling me “hon,” no one spoke to me. I am extremely particular about my diners, but yes, it was all very good and I liked it there very much. I finished my second beer, left a tip, and carried the bill (torn off the standard “Guest Check” pad) up to Johnny. With an unsmiling greeting, he took my money and pinioned my bill along with the rest of the day’s receipts on a four-inch spike to his right. I left Buffa’s and returned to work knowing I would go back the next day, which I did.
Small as it was, and though the diner was always at least some level of busy, I always managed to get a seat either at the counter, which I preferred, or at one of the tables. Over time a simple pattern emerged. I’d either get a bacon cheeseburger, a veal parm sandwich (a sloppy thing smothered in a red mystery sauce that had clearly been coalescing for months), or, if I was particularly hungover that day, a stack of pancakes. Whatever I got, and depending on how things were going at work, I’d wash it down with two, three, or four beers. That I was drinking at lunch every day was no secret to anyone, nor was it intended to be. When the paper’s owner stopped by my desk one day shortly after my daily hour in Buffa’s, he paused and asked, “Have you been drinking?”
“Of course I have,” I told him. “What did you expect?” That was the last I ever heard of it.
There’s no denying that for all it’s charms, Buffa’s was a health code nightmare. Actually that, too, was part of its charm. They didn’t keep a can of Raid on display behind the counter the way the old Great Jones Diner used to, but still. Once every two or three months, a Buffa’s lunch would leave me with a mild case of food poisoning, but I never said anything to the staff about it, never complained, and never took it as any reason why I should stop going there day after day. Hell, after another day-long bout of vomiting and stomach cramps, I knew the eight or nine weeks ahead would be smooth sailing.
Over time, as they got to know me better, Adele and Marie would stop and chat throughout my lunch. Adele was deep into some wacky New Age nonsense, very interested in the Egyptians, and was the first New Yorker I knew to sing the praises of the city’s new K-Mart. She also proudly showed me the bottle of Visine she kept under the counter for the sole purpose of dosing the coffee of any asshole customers. (She used it, too.) And Marie, bless her, called me “Luke” day in, day out until shortly before the paper’s offices moved to Chelsea. When I first started going there I was in the habit of wearing an old Army jacket, and the name patch above the left breast pocket read “Luke,” so she took this to be my name. I just thought it was kind of funny, so never bothered correcting her.
Johnny, who once took deep offense at my use of the term “goombah” in a column, filled me in on the diner’s history. In the old days, he told me, John Gotti’s offices were housed in a building right behind the diner, so he and his boys used to hang out there all the time.
“We had a lotta guys in here like this, y’know?” He said in a conspiratorial whisper, pressing his nose to one side with an index finger. “Then all these young filmmakers started coming here in the Eighties, and we got a different reputation.” That explained the autographed posters. Whenever he was in town, Jonathan Demme made a point of stopping by Buffa’s, and even gave Johnny his Golden Globe for Silence of the Lambs. Jim Jarmusch was in there for lunch at least once or twice a week, and John Waters had been there a few times as well. I always wanted to hear more about Paul Williams’ visit, but never got around to asking.
“So we got this reputation now as a hip filmmakers hangout,” Johnny said with a shrug. I could tell he missed the guys with the flat noses.
Although it was accepted as a given at work, my lunchtime drinking always seemed to make Johnny a little nervous, especially if I was sitting by one of the windows. He’d sneak over furtively and scoop up all the empties. Muttering something about not wanting people to think it was a tavern. Still, when I wrote a long piece singing Buffa’s praises for one of the Press’s annual Best of Manhattan issues, he showed up at the office out of the blue the next day, still wearing his apron, and carrying two cases of assorted beers. Johnny never, ever, ever gave things away—no freebies or discounts for regulars, nothing—so it was a doubly touching gesture, I thought.
Then I started looking through the beer he brought. It was all off brand or weird flavored microbrews (Sierra Nevada’s Lamb and Banana stout?). He’d clearly just cleaned out the diner’s beer cooler, getting rid of all the shit no one wanted, dumping it on me as a gesture of thanks for the write up.
But that damn story, I’m convinced, was the beginning of the end. That’s why, while I was still at the Press, and especially when the Best Of issue came around, I stopped writing about places I actually liked. In the weeks following that story, Buffa’s started growing more and more crowded during lunch hour, and it became much more difficult to find a seat and have a quiet, unmolested lunch and a couple of beers. A few times I went over there, and there was a fucking line. I refuse to stand in line at restaurants, so I turned around and headed back up Houston to the Great Jones Diner, where there was never a line.
Things got so overwhelming in Buffa’s that Johnny ended up buying the adjacent store, knocking out the wall, and setting up a second, much larger dining room.
This was all a matter of timing, of course. By late 1997 the Lower East Side was changing fast. The lunch crowd at Buffa’s had grown more upscale, touristy and obnoxious. Marie and Adele (who was going through two bottles of Visine a week) remained the only two waitresses, and they were growing more harried as they tried to keep up with the crowds, and no longer had time to chat.
I avoided the new dining room whenever I could, and they understood. The place just didn’t feel right. Despite the growing collection of hipster movie posters on the wall, it had no atmosphere.
When the paper moved to Chelsea. I had one last bacon cheeseburger at Buffa’s lunch counter, and promised I’d stop by to visit when I could, but never did. Within a few years they had completely revamped the front of the building. The original electric sign and Paul Williams’ picture were both gone. They even changed the name from “Buffa’s Deli” to “Buffa’s Restaurant.” The menu now offered stir fry, fancy salads and halibut. I remembered when the only fish they served came out of a can.
Well, good for Johnny, I thought. A few years after that, Buffa’s was gone completely, replaced by some haute cuisine joint I seriously doubt was going to last half a century on the corner of Prince and Houston.
Look as I might around the new offices. I never found another diner quite like Buffa’s, not that I expected to.
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