A neighborhood delight: Cafe Gitane

So what does it take for a neighborhood restaurant to become not only an establishment, but a local staple?  Or, more specifically, for it to become intimately connected with the fabric of the area itself?  I’m going to use Cafe Gitane, one of my favorite casual hang outs in New York, as a prime example of what I consider indispensable in achieving such an iconic status around your town.

Cafe Gitane is a Moroccan-French fusion cafe in Soho.  It’s been around for a while, and has gone through quite an evolution of clientele and employees.  Back in the day, I hear it used to be quite the model hangout, but now it’s usually packed (and I mean packed) with hipsters and beautiful, though not professionally beautiful, people.  Naturally, I fit in swimmingly.

So let’s get down to business: what makes Cafe Gitane particularly distinctive, more so than other similar fusion cafes nearby in Soho?  The first thing that I find important is that they’ve managed to retain their characteristic light, jovial air unwaveringly since I started going a couple of years ago.  The room always feels like it’s filled with regulars having an absolutely splendid day and surrounded by bright colors and fanciful decorations–I challenge you to eat at Gitane and not feel immediately elated.

Another reason I love Gitane is that it is unpretentiously casual.  We all know that some places that claim to be casual and have good looking clientele, but go out of their way to make things exclusive, snobby, and basically everything other than formalizing the dress code.  Gitane takes no reservations, treats everyone the same, and does it all with a smile and a laugh.  By fostering this purposely unstructured environment, they’ve managed to become more than just a cool spot: it’s a neighborhood institution.

One way they’ve managed to do this is by keeping the food as casual and unpretentious as the restaurant itself.  Gitane masterfully creates dishes that other restaurants might be afraid to due to their simplicity.  They’ll throw two slices of fresh toasted baguette on a plate with brie and sliced apple.  Delightfully simple, but you know what?  Sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for, and when it’s done right, it really hits the spot.  Here are a few examples of the simple dishes prepared with not-so-simple expertise:

This is a yogurt sauce with cucumber chunks, spices, and rose layered on top of hummus.  Simple, and mind-blowingly delicious.

Gorgonzola with pine nuts and honey.  You could make this at home, but somehow I doubt it would be as good.

Moroccan cous cous with hummus, baguette, and merguez sausage.  It’s presented in a zany way with flourish and personality, everything you would want in a cous cous!

Simply put, Cafe Gitane is my home away from home in Soho.  I know I can have a consistently friendly, fun, and fantastic meal without needing to worry about the fuss of reservations or fancy food.  I hope to find an equally hospitable home in Chelsea, but until I do, Cafe Gitane is going to be seeing a lot more of me.

Cafe Gitane
242 Mott Street (at Prince)
(212) 334-9552

Mark posted this on September 14, 2008 and is filed under New York, Restaurants.

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