Shopsin's is a favorite of Calvin Trillin, who wrote the forward to Kenny Shopsin's cook book and did a profile of him and the restaurant in the New Yorker. A documentary has been made on him as well.
A few years ago Mr. Shopsin moved his diner to the Lower East Side, inside the Essex Street Market. One can imagine that this area of Manhattan reminds him more of the Village in 1973 than the "West Village" of today does. The mix of low and high food sellers in the Essex Street Market feels like a perfect fit for Shopsin's, where his "Slutty Cakes" sit on the menu near the "Saxelby" egg and cheese sandwich, clearly named for his neighbor in the Essex Market, Saxelby Cheesemongers.
Shopsin's is open five days a week from 9am till 2 pm (except Sunday, when it opens at 10am). The menu is huge and dense. It is estimated that there are over 900 potential dishes available. This is coming out of one of the smallest kitchen's in New York. My guess is that at least 500 of the items available don't exist anywhere else on the planet. The crazy concoctions Mr. Shopsin has developed over the past 40 years knows no equal. You can see the menu here:
It is worth perusing before you go because it takes five minutes for your eyes and brain to adjust to what it is seeing and 10 minutes to start understanding it.
Shopsin's does not accept parties of more than four people. The interior of the diner only holds six people with a few more tables out front. And don't expect inexpensive diner prices. Shopsin's is not cheap. But chances are that if you clean your plate you will not have to eat for the rest of the day.
What can you expect from your meal here? Insanity. Literally and figuratively. There will be a ton of profanity. There will be multiple loud conversations going on between the regulars who all seem to know one another. There will copious amounts of food, some of it in combinations that have no business being together but are delicious none the less. There will probably be a mix of classic rock and Heavy Metal on the stereo.
Here, in a snapshot, was my meal this morning (be warned, much profanity and offensive language is about to follow. Seriously.):
Seemingly genteel woman in a straw hat sitting near me - "The fucking Flying Nun. You didn't get that reference?"
Seemingly nice, sweet guy with glasses - "No. I got it. The Flying Nun. That was a stupid fucking idea for a show."
Gilligan's Island and other stupid shows are discuseed. Then the woman in the straw hat mentions she thinks she likes the new Pope. That is discussed, with Mr Shopsin saying is it somehow analogous to hiring a cheif of police who likes to drink.
A guy walks in and joins the woman in the straw hat. One of the staff mention how skinny he looks and asks if he has cancer. His response is "Funny, the last time I came in you asked me if I had AIDS."
And so the meal went, veering from movies to politics to local gossip to the scourge that is McDonalds. I sat and listened, eating my breakfast.
So, my breakfast. It comes from the section of the menu called "The Petes" and "More Petes" which has ten dishes all named for various Petes (and two that aren't for some reason). I ordered the "Swee'pea." That is kind named for a Pete, right?
Sweet cornbread topped with three poached eggs, maple bacon (perfectly cooked), cheddar cheese and sweet peas. It is insane and a stunner.
I can't believe I ate the whole thing.
Be sure to ask for hot sauce. It is house made and excellent.
There was a moment when I was eating my Swee'pea and listening to the shouted conversations around me that all was right with the world. Or, more correctly, New York City. Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" came on the stereo. I chewed, swallowed and sang along. I thought, "I should bring my kids here." Then I thought, "No, I probably shouldn't." Then I smiled. It was nice to know that despite the efforts of our outgoing Mayor a few places like Shopsin's still exist in Manhattan.
Loud, crass and absolutely unhealthy, Shopsin's is a slice of bygone New York. Before calorie counts on menus, before precious salads foraged from Brooklyn rooftops, before soda bans and bike lanes. This is a piece of the crazy, vibrant, slightly dangerous and very lude and crude NYC of my youth. If you are easily offended Shopsin's is not the place for you. If you pine for a less clean, antiseptic version of New York, you will find yourself a home at Shopsin's. Maybe I will take my kids there after all.
Shopsin's General Store - 120 Essex Street, located inside the Essex Street Market