New York’s Taste of Time

How New York’s culinary institutions survive challenging economic turbulence and fickle appetites.

By Linh Nguyen and Caleb Mutua.

Faicco’s and Nom Wah Tea Parlor are two family-run restaurants passed down to generations, each with a history dating back approximately 100 years. They boast rich heritages and have thrived despite mercurial food trends, critics and shifting palettes.

Faicco’s butcher shop at 260 Bleecker Street, West Village. Photo: Linh Nguyen/Columbia News

Edward Faicco came to the United States from Sorrento, Italy in 1896 and opened his Italian butcher shop in the West Village in 1900. Four generations later, Eddie Faicco, 49, oversees the bustling shop.

Eddie Faicco has been running the business for over 30 years straight out of high school. Photo: Caleb Mutua/Columbia News

When talking about his children and the possibilities of them taking over the business in the future, Eddie Faicco said his two daughters never show an interest in it, and he won’t be retiring anytime soon.

“My oldest daughter is studying nursing. My second daughter actually wants to become a doctor. She talked about going to NYU Medical school, so I’m going to have to keep working for a long time,” Faicco said.

His youngest son, who is eight years old, often comes to help out at the store. Faicco said he doesn’t know if his son will be the next owner.

“He plays more than he works, but it’s fun. I enjoy having him here,” Faicco said. “He’s still too young, so he still has a while before he makes up his mind.”

Nom Wah Tea Parlor is another ancient (in food terms, at least) restaurant that has witnessed the city’s transformation through the decades.

We stumbled upon Nom Wah Tea Parlor on a quest for a highly rated dim sum place. Founded in 1920, it’s the oldest dim sum restaurant in New York City and is tucked away down a short alley in Chinatown. The shop used to be a bakery run by a Chinese couple but in 1974, the owners sold the place to Wally Tang who in 1950 migrated from China. At just 16 years old, he had started as dishwasher at the then-bakery, working his way up over 24 years.

The restaurant’s vintage interior has attracted filmmakers for movies like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Premium Rush,” according to Am New York’s list of the city’s oldest restaurants. Photos: Linh Nguyen/Columbia News

Wilson Tang and Vincent Tang, Wally’s nephews, took over Nom Wah Tea and currently serve as the owner and manager, respectively. The two men share the same story: they both quit their stable jobs at financial firms to switch to the food industry.

When Wilson began running the restaurant, he made some integral changes. Once a popular bakery known for its mooncakes, Nom Wah Tea only served dim sum on the side for breakfast and lunch. Since 2010, it has been a one-stop shop for all customers who crave dim sum at any time of the day.

Vincent Tang, Wilson’s cousin and the restaurant manager, talks about how Nom Wah Tea has survived through the decades, and how he has enjoyed his career switch.

Rent heat forcing restaurateurs out of their kitchens

Both Faicco’s and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which operate on family-owned premises, have escaped New York’s rental price pressure. Others have not been so lucky.

In 1969, Don Girardi, a purveyor of leather goods, rented a little store next to Faicco’s meat store on 260 Bleecker St, New York, for less than $300 a month. He now sells his leather bags from his land cruiser packed next to the Italian meat store.

For old boys like Faicco’s, staying afloat meant understanding the rapidly changing market and rethinking their business strategy.

“Now the buildings in this neighborhood are worth millions of dollars. We’ve changed with the time, and that’s what really has helped us. You can’t really survive by strictly being a meat market anymore. You have to do something more,” Faicco said.

When Eddie Faicco saw the West Village, formerly a hub for poor Italian immigrants, was becoming a high-end neighborhood, he noticed another trend too: people were not cooking as much as they used to, and many working parents had less time to sit down for dinner.

So he shifted his business’s focus from raw meat to prepared food.

Food industry newbies like Daniel Dembele, who quit his job as a cab driver seven years ago to start a West African restaurant in Little Senegal, Harlem, have had to increase prices to keep the doors open.

La Savane restaurant owner Daniel Dembele said some West African immigrants have been complaining that his menu prices have gone up, but he has no other option. Photo: Caleb Mutua/Columbia News

When he first opened La Savane Restaurant on West 116th Street, rent was $3,000. Today, he is paying close to $6,000. Consequently, a plate of rice stew that used to go for $10 dollars is now $14 plus tax.

“We don’t have any other choice but to move with the wave. If you stay in the same spot you going to close the business for sure because everything has gone up,” Dembele said.

As the tide of gentrification continues to sweep across Harlem and other New York boroughs, La Savane has begun to introduce new cuisines to attract the fresh crop of Harlemites that are quickly transforming the historically black neighborhood.

Different cuisines at La Savane restaurant. Photos: Caleb Mutua/Columbia News

“I have seen three restaurants move uptown since I opened my restaurant. It’s not like they wanted to move but the high rent prices forced them to move. The landlords know that if they can move me right now, the next tenant coming in will probably pay double what am paying right now,” Dembele said.

If New York’s rent trajectory is anything to go by, restaurant-goers will continue to dig deeper into their pockets to enjoy their favorite food.