The first time that I stayed for any real length of time in New York City, I was 17, in town for a nerdy summer camp session at Barnard College. As I recall, we had no idea what to do with ourselves. New York was a vast sea of neon and possibilities. We had little money and only vague ideas about how to sneak into places that had an age restriction, plus a curfew at midnight. My group of camp friends and I would take the 1 or 9 train (R.I.P.) down to Christopher Street and wander for hours through the Village, the East Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. I made all the classic mistakes of a first time New York resident: uncomfortable shoes, expensive stale sandwiches, hanging out in midtown. I came to the East Village expecting the Ramones and Lou Reed and CBGB’s, only to discover that the place was long into its transformation from gritty to luxe. But in the midst of the bank construction and the influx of NYU frat bros, there was a shining light: The Yaffa Cafe.
The Yaffa Cafe, which announced yesterday that it had shut down for good, was an East Village 24-hour eatery with a measure of deliberate quirkiness in its decor and its dining options. In that heady summer, I would sit there for hours, watching the characters of the neighborhood trickling in, eating hummus, attempting to order wine. After I moved to New York for good in college, it became an easy go-to spot to hang out while waiting for a concert to start or a train to come, to read a book or have a gathering of friends in the back. It was one of the hold-outs from the old, weird 1980s East Village, a place with busily patterned wallpaper and vegan options before the blossoming of specialty restaurants out to Alphabet City. The backyard, looped with strings of lights, was a tiny oasis in the rumble of the Village where you could split a pitcher of sangria with out-of-towners or kill time before the night’s revelries got started.
The metabolism of New York City real estate is voracious and unending. Every week, there is a former staple lost to the surge for condos and ATMs and Duane Reades and twee upscale farm-to-table restaurants. And the staples were, of course, just as much interlopers when they started out. It is one of the greatest and worst things about living here, that you can never walk down the same block twice. When the Department of Health closed the restaurant in early September, Yaffa Cafe had been around almost 32 years. In New York real estate years, that’s more than a century. It is the lesson that we have to learn over and over, the impermanence of a landscape that seems so solid and immutable and familiar. But it is a hard lesson nonetheless. Farewell, Yaffa Cafe. You’ll be missed.