Anytime balloons are affixed to a street sign outside a restaurant (or bar, as it may be) when I’m sitting nearly in the picture window of said restaurant — I take that as a good sign. Who doesn’t love balloons, bobbing and bouncing softly off each other, as the background to their evening?
It makes a festive place like Fanelli Cafe in Soho — with its tin ceilings, worn, wooden bar and bear of a bald-headed bartender, who single-handedly (and quite adeptly) nurtures to his bar into the steady, cacophonous riot that is part of Fanelli’s charm.
“Quiet, everyone, quiet,” he bellows, and then, when the din has settled a murmur, he turns to my friend and I and asks, “are you here for dinner or for drinks?”
“Both,” I said, “But we want to sit at the bar.”
His whole face lights up — that’s his turf. (For the couple behind us that wants to sit down for dinner, he sends them to the hostess stand deep inside the restaurant with an dismissive wave.) He scans the bar, and gestures for us to come to where there’s a single open seat.
“Just wait a few minutes and you’ll have two,” he says. No doubt if only one other single seat opened up on the opposite side of the bar, he’d readily convince everyone scoot down so we could fit the two chairs in together. Fortunately, two adjacent seats opened up at the same time, and, at his signal, we made the move.
It’s called a cafe, and certainly, there are more tables than seats at the bar, but I know Fanelli’s for its drinking culture, so when I think of how to categorize the food, immediately in my mind it falls under pub fare, better than average.
It’s a little classier — the burgers, for example, come on a nice onion roll, with your option of fries or salad, and you can choose between a beef, turkey, veggie or bison burger ($10.95). Really, rather than being upscale pub food, this is the effect of a great bar operating within a full-service restaurant kitchen.
We split a bison burger, plus pepper jack cheese, plus bacon, cooked to a medium doneness — and it was a beautiful thing. During my first encounter with Fanelli’s, on a trip to visit the city before I moved here, my knowledgeable guide told me to “get the burger. They have great burgers,” and I’ve hardly strayed since because they are good.
We shared an order of jalapeno poppers ($5.50), the cheddar inside kind, which were good, but not great, and a little skimpy — the order only came with four. Sure, it saved us the decision of who got the last one, or the awkwardness of splitting a popper with a knife, but really, an order of poppers should come with no less than five, ideally six, or seven, little gems. All the better to order another pint, you might say.