When I was growing up in Greenwich Village, my mother would take me uptown — an adventure in itself — to my pediatrician on Park Avenue. Afterward, we went to the Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 83rd Street for lunch (candy, deceptively, was in short supply). I’d have a chocolate egg cream and grilled cheese; she’d order a toasted corn muffin and black coffee. A few weeks ago, sitting in the forest green Naugahyde booth at the back of the restaurant, I thought of her.
Across from me was the luncheonette’s co-owner John Philis, 68, whose Greek grandfather, Soterios Philis, came to New York in 1921 from Northern Epirus, an area that is now part of Albania. He saved like crazy and in 1925, he opened the Lexington Candy Shop, serving breakfast and lunch all day. Nearly a century later, it’s still a neighborhood fixture, seemingly unchanged in decades.
“We are not a Greek coffee shop,” says John Philis, a tall, genial man with gray hair, glasses, a white work jacket and a blue ball cap. “We’re an American luncheonette. We’re proud of being Greek, but we just serve American and New York stuff.” With the exception, he adds, of a Greek omelet (feta cheese and spinach) and a Greek salad. Among the most prized “New York stuff” on offer are the egg creams, which Philis says are the best in the city. “We know how to do it right, using half-and-half as opposed to milk, and we make all our own syrups from scratch.” The 98-year-old restaurant also remains faithful to other venerable companies: The bread and muffins are from Orwashers Bakery (established in 1916), Bassetts (established in 1861) supplies the ice cream and the coffee is from Vassilaros & Sons (established in 1919).
According to John, the elder Philis men — his grandfather and his father, who followed Soterios from Europe — sold chocolate they made in the building’s basement, something John only discovered decades later, long after they’d given it up. “The chocolate thing is very labor intensive,” he says. “And it’s not as profitable, especially during the summer months. So they made it what it is now, as opposed to having chocolate in July. It was a business decision.”
Philis has degrees in history and public administration from New York University. He came in to help his father during school vacations, then joined the family business full time after college and graduate school. By 1980, he was in charge, and in 1990 he brought on his business partner, Bob Karcher. Philis’s wife, Mary, does all the restaurant’s social media.
I’m curious about why they call it a luncheonette rather than a diner. “A luncheonette has lighter fare in that there’s not a dinner menu,” says Philis. “It’s more burgers, breakfast, soda fountain drinks and the like.” (On weekdays, the luncheonette is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. On weekends, it opens at 8 a.m., and closes at 4 p.m. on Sundays.)
Opposite the row of booths in the long, narrow space are swivel stools in the same green set beside a Formica-topped counter. On it are pastry stands, one containing danishes, another a luscious coconut cake. Overhead, on the back wall, are the changeable letter boards, white on brown, listing the items on offer: shrimp salad; tuna melts (with Swiss, Cheddar, mozzarella or American; a roast beef club; cinnamon raisin toast; banana nut French toast; pancakes with bacon, ham or sausage. There’s the list of ice cream flavors, too, and sundaes, banana splits and the fountain drinks that people recall from their childhood, as if Proust had loved a Creamsicle frosted. I asked for a black-and-white ice cream soda (chocolate and vanilla ice cream). Philis obliged.
Along with the menus, there’s a sign that reads, “Be nice or leave.” At the back of the counter is a mint green 1940 Hamilton Beach mixer that turns out the malteds and other frothy drinks. The immense gas-fired coffee urns are from 1948, around the time Philis’s grandfather retired. “We were able to keep operating during the last big blackout [in 2003] because we use gas for coffee and a gas grill for the food,” Philis says, adding, “We could go on serving the neighborhood.”
Lexington Avenue has long been a kind of urban service road — dry cleaners, watch repairs, shoemakers — for the grand apartment buildings of Fifth and Park Avenues, and the townhouses on the side streets. Even now in Lexington Candy Shop, there are signs of this opulent world: An elegant woman of perhaps 70 in a blue silk dress, stockings and pumps, is in a back booth; a kid in a school uniform spins on a counter stool; a couple of well-dressed young mothers with well-dressed babies huddle over coffee; a pair of older men, white haired and spry, sit at the counter consuming coffee egg creams.
Dr. Howard Shaw, an Upper East Sider, is a devoted regular and so is his family. “My daughter Samantha asked, when she was little, ‘How does everyone here know you?’ That’s the kind of place it is,” he says. “There’s a bunch of regular characters, everyone chitchats and tells jokes.” Several times over the past three years, Shaw and his family have made chocolate chip pancakes with Philis and his kitchen staff to deliver to the nearby Ronald McDonald House, which provides temporary housing for children receiving treatment for serious illnesses and their families.
For years people have been opening retro diners around town, but they rarely get it right. You can’t simulate charm. And social media kindles some yearning for old New York. Philis tells me that Nicolas Heller, who features classic spots around New York City on his TikTok feed (@newyorknico), came in last year and posted a video of Philis making an ice cream float. His followers took notice and soon every weekend, lines snaked around the block. “They wanted burgers or pancakes or a Coca-Cola float,” says Philis.
My mother loved the luncheonette not just for that corn muffin but for the comfort, the sense of permanence, the way the place seemed to have always been there. She’s long gone, but the Lexington Candy Shop remains just as she knew it.