“You just missed Antoni,” restaurateur Eric Marx tells me, as I walk into the Village Den on a Sunday afternoon. “He was here 20 minutes ago.”
I sigh with relief. My hair’s a mess, and I regret my outfit choice (an acrylic sweater) on this uncharacteristically hot fall day. So I’m okay that I’ve just missed him because—at the risk of sounding vain—the day I meet Antoni Porowski, Netflix’s Queer Eye food and wine expert, I want to look cute.
I’ll admit I’m a fan of @antoni not for his food per se, but for his understated graphic-tee-and-blue-jeans fashion (which I could never emulate, I’m too high-strung), for his sweet boy-next-door personality (who doesn’t have a crush on him?), and for his unabashed ugly cry (okay, the ugly cry is the one thing we have in common).
This past weekend Porowski, along with business partners (and workout buddies) Marx and Lisle Richards, opened the revamped Village Den (225 West 12th St.) as a healthy, fast-casual spot to grab breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Replacing the 36-year-old diner by the same name, the new Village Den has a clean, modern feel, a little less New York than it used to be and a little more Los Angeles.
In an industry that lauds professional chefs and only recently has begun to consider home cooks in a more serious way, many have been boringly cynical about Porowski’s cooking chops over the years.
But as I sit alone at a slick, well-lit teal table in the corner next to a window facing Greenwich Ave., staring up at the colorful West Village–inspired mural by Jeremyville, I don’t care whether or not Porowski is a "chef." All I can think is: This is a smart business move.
Whatever you think of the food itself, the open, airy space already has quite the foot traffic in its first weekend, at 4 p.m. at that. I could see locals stopping in for a healthy bite to eat, maybe a kombucha or a smoothie to go with, and sitting in a corner with a book or a laptop or a friend. I could see myself ordering the $15 Market Plate for dinner (your choice of any three sides, including mashed peas with mint, turmeric-roasted cauliflower, citrus fennel slaw, maple parsnip mash, and sweet potato wedges), something I used to eat a lot at Westville right down the street, all through my twenties. In fact, the food here reminds me of Westville's vegetable-forward menu. But there's no red meat, no soy, and no gluten.
A meat-and-two-sides section of the menu called TV Dinners features creature comforts like meatloaf, fish sticks, and stuffed cabbage...except they’re apple-glazed turkey meatloaf, gluten-free macadamia-crusted fish sticks, and cauliflower rice–stuffed cabbage with pine nuts.
“They’re all your typical TV dinners,” Marx tells me, as he pulls up a chair. “We’re just doing them differently.”
“We wanted something familiar,” Richards adds, “proper home-cooked meals that someone could pick up and take home to eat. New Yorkers eat food in front of the TV, you know. It’s what we do.”
Richards’ comment has me drawing a direct mental line from the 1950s solo table—the one parked in front of the idiot box, microwave meatloaf and dried-out potatoes at the helm—to our current Netflix moment of Seamless (or sheet-pan dinners) and peak television. We now expect bigger and greater things from our TV shows; it only makes sense that we expect them as well from the dinners we choose to eat in front of the tube.
“Nostalgia is a powerful spice,” Melissa Clark once tweeted. It’s smart that the Village Den is tapping into it with an updated sense of what consumers of today’s wellness generation is looking for. They still want the meatloaf—just without the high sodium levels and microwavable cling film.
With that said, the one thing my TV dinner could use is a little salt—which, if you’re eating clean or coming here after a workout, could be helpful. As for myself, having not eaten a single vegetable all weekend, I appreciate the loaded tray of cauliflower and sweet potatoes in front of me. The apple glaze on my meatloaf is sweet and familiar, like barbecue sauce. It’s perfectly casual.
When I ask about the nomenclature of “fast-casual,” Richards has a lot to say. “We’re good food done fast,” he says. “I think ‘fast-casual’ is a larger umbrella term that includes fast food but also something like this. People want a good meal, but they want it to be quality.”
Celebrity chef–driven restaurants in Manhattan may be closing left and right, but a quick corner joint that caters to the 30-something West Village Equinox crowd looking for clean food to eat in front of the TV after a workout? Backed by the ineradicable celebrity of one of the Fab Five?
It may not be for me (I barely eat vegetables and never exercise, let alone leave my apartment). But for the rest of the world who can afford it, it could work.
What's your favorite TV dinner? Let us know in the comments below.