A Refuge Too Long Overlooked

Gigi Café’s charms were right under this writer’s upturned nose for years. | GIGICAFE.COM

Two months ago I moved out of the city. That is a string of words I never thought I would put together. I was born here and I grew up in the fully-colored, art- and rebellion-bursting ‘70s, before each neighborhood had a sickening timestamp inked on it “ONLY FOR THE SUPERRICH NOW.” When I come into the city these days from my sublime but distant tiny town (how weird it is to write that!), I need inexpensive refuges.

Gigi Café had hidden in plain sight all the years I’d been going to see my shrink, Violetta, on the once majority-poor people Upper West Side. It was plunked down next to the old 72nd Street subway station whose grounds had — a whole lifetime ago — been known as Needle Park.

When I was still a New Yorker — that is to say, way back in November — I had turned up my nose at Gigi Café. It looked like every other Manhattan deli with premade panini sandwiches, “yogurt parfaits,” giant bowls of salad you could have mixed and mingled according to your exact specifications. The seating room in the back had no decoration, just white walls with young and old people huddled in winter coats, reading and talking, and you could only see the outdoor light from the front if you sat in one of three particular seats. All the chairs were a weird bright green, and the lighting when you walked in was too cheery and florescent. I would only let myself be seen in there when I was thirsty and worried about immediate dehydration.

MORSELS: Upper West Side’s Gigi Café offers taste treats, uncommon companionability

What a difference six weeks makes. Now, commuting back to the motherland just for therapy (insert New York joke here), my commute is so long and hard, the wait between Metro North trains so protracted, that I need a place to sit in, sometimes for hours, where the staff will smile at me, the food will be healthy, cheap, and good, and there will be a clean bathroom. Where the chairs and tables will be comfortable and not crowded, and I can sit my tuchas down and not feel unwanted shoulder-bumping, or any pressure to move. Where nearly every employee will greet me kindly, no matter what I buy.

Gigi Café is, to put it mildly, not hot. It is not sharp or stylish or even new, and it most certainly does not have bone broth, house-fermented pickles, or artisanal butcher meat. Here is what it does have: a staff that cares about the people who come, including many elderly and disabled neighborhood residents. Though there are no waiters, only counter service, I have seen a worker, with great warmth and friendliness, ask a senior with disabilities, already seated in the back, exactly what she wanted, and then take care to get it to her as quickly and deliciously as possible. Some seniors even take care of other seniors here, making sure those who are more disabled than they are have everything they need on the table. (“Here’s some more napkins and a knife, Mary!”) Checking in on those who are frailer than themselves. In that way, the place reminds me of an informal community center with really good soup.

There are also, like I mentioned, younger people in the seats. There are high school girls of color doing homework together; straight couples hanging out; gay activist couples on (very) cheap dates. (Or as one uncomfortable Yelper put it, “There were some dubious characters loitering there nursing their coffees.”) Loads and loads of people reading physical books and newspapers. Friends of all colors, looking not very moneyed, hanging out or killing time together.

About that soup: there are four changing, homemade soups a day, and the kale and chicken was deep and nurturing, the brown lentil warm and spicy. The chicken cemita (the hot sandwich from Puebla, Mexico, with avocado, jalapeños, Oaxacan cheese, chipotle, and onions, lettuce, and tomato, $8.99) was exciting and filling, as deeply satisfying as the splash of stars on a clear night in Beacon, my new home. It was big and oomphy enough for dinner. The milpero panini (chicken, toasted cheddar cheese, and lifeless cooked onions and peppers) was wan by comparison. But the salad bowl was like a kind of religious mystery: after I chose from among several kinds of supremely fresh organic greens as a base, the man mixed up a huge, huge stainless steel bowl for me full of everything I wanted: tuna, blue cheese, peas, sun-dried tomatoes, shredded carrots, olives, mushrooms, sunflower seeds, cute pickled beets, salt, and pepper, and it was the freshest and tastiest thing I’ve ever had in a Manhattan deli. ($10.99, enough for a dinner big enough to keep you going all the way home.)

There is also a lovely coconut parfait with coconut yogurt, preternaturally tiny pieces of apple scattered throughout, and a sprinkling of almond slivers and cranberries on top ($4.49). I can’t think of a more delightful healthy snack.

It’s hard to convey how happy, sad, surprised, and strange at once I feel on leaving the city. Now I live in an inexpensive place where a high mountain curls tenderly around the town like a hot-blooded animal, where other mountains stick their humps out of the Hudson River like prehistoric creatures. To me, there is more possibility here than in the five boroughs right now, more possibility for art, beauty, maybe even friendship in a place where people don’t have to fight so hard just to pay the rent. There is more breathing room and less pressure, and as I take a deep breath, I find I want more and more places like Gigi Café.

Gigi Café, 2067 Broadway between 71st and 72nd Streets, 212-501-7500; gigicafe.com. Daily, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. There is one all-gender restroom. (I have not been to Gigi Café’s Chelsea location.