A Love Letter
One of my favorite episodes of How I Met Your Mother centers around the gang engaging in one of my favorite pass-times: Hunting down the best burger in New York. (For my money, by the way, it's at Stage Restaurant on 2nd Ave.) However, being HIMYM at its best, the episode makes a greater statement about life in New York: It opens with a voice-over lamenting the way the city has changed over the years, with favorite rock clubs, dive bars and lounges giving way to drug stores, restaurants and banks.
Spots you love tend to disappear around here. Sure, some places that have played a big role in my personal experience of New York so far are still around—we still have Skylight Diner and the UCB Theater, for example—but in the eight years that I've been here, even hallowed institutions like the Second Ave Deli have shuttered their doors. Other places that are still open, like Castro's in Fort Greene, are barely recognizable.
For me, though, I think my biggest New York loss will always be K'av'eh'az.
To be honest, I have no idea why I went looking for something to do the night I found K'av'eh'az. It was my first week in New York, the middle of my freshman orientation. There wasn't exactly a dearth of activities around campus. I just remember going was a last-minute decision, fueled mostly by whim: I had never really heard anyone say they don't like jazz, so why not hit up a jazz club? Worst-case scenario was that I'd be indifferent to it, and that wasn't exactly a big loss.
I plugged my eleven-pound Dell laptop into my building's ethernet (which was an amazing college luxury after almost ten years of AOL dial-up), and did a Yahoo search for jazz clubs in New York City. (Back then, Googling something was called “Yahoo.”) My selection criteria had to have been fairly arbitrary, but after a few minutes perusing the first website I found, I was off with a hallmate in tow.
That evening, I had several firsts, all of which I've repeated countless times over the years: My first ride on the F train. My first visit to SoHo. And my first taste of K'av'eh'az's chicken fingers and Belgian melted chocolate.
K'av'eh'az (which, by the way, is Hungarian for “coffee house”) billed itself as a restaurant, jazz club and bar, but it crammed a lot more function than that into a moderately small space: The bar was on your left as you walked in, along with a dessert counter that included my Platonic ideals of a wildberry tart and a Black Forrest chocolate cake. The room opened up to a handful or two of tables with winking candles, set around a small stage that featured musicians seven nights a week. The restaurant was also a gallery for modern art, completely redecorating the walls every few weeks by switching to a new exhibit. There was a bookshelf, but in more than a hundred visits, I never saw anyone touch it.
The food was excellent. Sadly, I was still in my “no-red-meat” phase, so I never got to give their burger a chance. But my usual was, believe it or not, the chicken fingers. Friends would balk when I told them that they were the best chicken fingers they'd ever have, and then apologize for it after they tasted them: A crispy, buttery shell hugging tender, juicy chicken that was always piping hot. Combined with the afore-mentioned Belgian melted chocolate, it was the perfect way to start learning to be an adult without letting go of the kid's menu. (They had more substantive fare, too—fish and steaks that were destination-worthy, along with an impressive wine list. But what 18-year-old needs that?)
K'av'eh'az was where I went every time I had friends in town and wanted to bring them somewhere uniquely, unpretentiously “New York.” It was an easy place to fall in love with, and a place where you could fall in love easily.
Getting heartstruck was a hazard of going to K'av'eh'az. At various times, I'd left infatuated with a first date, with a girl at a nearby table, and with a certain dark-eyed waitress (Jessica, if you're reading this...). If any of my pieces for my fiction studios in college had a romantic undertone to them, chances are I wrote their first drafts at K'av'eh'az.
For as often as I brought friends there, the vast majority of my visits were solo affairs. I'd show up around 7 or 8 at night with a bulging backpack, pick out a table in a corner, and unload a stack of books, a legal pad and a handful of pens. Either Dylan, who was the fedora-crowned king of their waitstaff, or one of his charges would bring me some food and then glass after glass of water. From behind what had to be a fairly ridiculous-looking fortress of books, I'd listen to the evening's band and whittle away at my work. If I had an assignment that warranted it, I could usually count on one of the evening's musicians for an interview. Other times, I knew I could probably talk to them about their music a bit and that they'd teach me how to better appreciate it. (That's how I first became a fan of Sasha Dobson.) Finally, around midnight or one a.m., I'd reluctantly pry myself away and hop a subway back to Brooklyn.
My first year as an R.A., K'av'eh'az was the only place I could go to do work where my residents wouldn't follow. Anywhere I tried to go on campus, I'd seem to bump into a resident who was having problems with her roommate or who wanted to talk about a class he just had. Without that sanctuary, I don't know how I would have gotten through my sophomore year.
I knew that my last few visits to K'av'eh'az would be my last. The owner wanted to move on, but couldn't find someone to take over, so we all had some notice and had our chances to say goodbye. It's funny, though, that I don't remember a thing about the music on closing night. I brought a few friends with me, so as to better celebrate my last chance to soak the place up. Aside from Dylan, I didn't recognize anyone in the crowd that night, but I'm sure most of them had to have known it was closing night. The owner was there, and I had a moment to talk with him, toasting him with a glass of his own champagne (which was on the house for the night).
All I could say was, “Thank you.”
A couple weeks ago, some friends and I were trying to decide where to go for dinner. We wanted a place we could find food we all agreed on, eat leisurely, have a good conversation, and feel comfortable with the atmosphere. We were having a hard time. One friend commented that, along with limited set budgets, this was why the characters on How I Met Your Mother have MacLaren's, the one spot that they love and go to whenever they can't decide where to go, or just want to get out of the house.
She had no idea how sad that comment made me, because she had no idea that she had just described K'av'eh'az.