Eat Me: memoir and cookbook from Shopsin's, the best, most eclectic eatery in Greenwich Village

I first read about Shopsin's Greenwich Village restaurant in Calvin Trillan's classic New Yorker tribute to it, and its owner, the eccentric, garrulous, cranky Kenny Shopsin. The last time I was in New York, I managed to eat there, getting breakfast with Teresa Nielsen Hayden at the new location in Essex Market. I was transported by some of the most satisfying food I've ever been privileged to eat.

Now, the notoriously publicity-shy Kenny Shopsin has written a book (with Carolynn Carreno) about the philosophy and history of the restaurant, called Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, and it, too, is an utterly satisfying, utterly peculiar experience.

Kenny Shopsin's restaurant began life as a grocery store, purchased for $25,000 by his father for his peripatetic son (Shopsin describes himself then as a neurotic who saw a therapist five days a week). In the grocery store, Shopsin found a kind of frenetic peace in cultivating and deepening his relationship with his customers (one of whom, Eve, he married). Gradually, he added prepared food to the grocery lineup, then more and more, as the satisfaction of cooking for others seized his interest, until the grocery store became a restaurant.

The two things I'd remembered about Shopsin's from the New Yorker piece was that there were 900 things on the menu and that parties of five could not be seated, ever, even if they split into a three and a two (there's a lovely bit of verse explaining this rule in the book, written by an affectionate Shopsin's regular).

When Teresa and I ate there last summer, I was trepidatious about asking for some substitutions, given Shopsin's reputation for being a real hardcase with finicky eaters, but he was glad to try some new stuff for me, and the food turned out superbly. I had a kind of African groundnut stew with pumpkin, and a soya pumpkin-pecan spice malted that was so good, I can actually still taste it when I close my eyes. Shopsin himself was hilarious and warm, dropping the f-bomb more quickly and frequently than any other restauranteur of my experience. He talked over the food with us, asking Teresa why she hadn't eaten the taco-shell bowl her meal came in, listening carefully, and vowing to revise the recipe based on her feedback.

Shopsin's memoir is like the man: loud, opinionated, warm, exuberant and absolutely delightful. He had me when he revealed that he'd named one of his dishes solely to piss off Andrea Dworkin ("she's probably never heard of this dish"), but I really caught fire when I came to section on pancakes.

First, there's the revelation that Shopsin's pancake batter is Aunt Jemima's Frozen, and the lengthy explanation of why this is so. Then there's the gallery of pancake variations, including chocolate peanut butter, coconut, oatmeal, chorizo corn, post-moderns, spinach walnut and pear pignoli, all mouthwateringly good. It reminded me of nothing so much as the sloppy cooks that feature in some of Daniel Pinkwater's best books, like Borgel and Fat Men from Space -- Shopsin's is pure Pinkwater, like something that popped off the page.

Then there's the crepes: they're not crepes. They're flour tortillas, dipped in milk and flash-fried on the super-hot griddle (Shopskin reveals that he drilled out bigger burner-jets on his custom stove). He swears that French tourists tell him they're the best crepes they've ever eaten.

Shopsin's my kind of obsessive. He's kind of sentimental (his kids feature heavily in the memoir and recipes, and the book includes photos of them having diaper changes in the kitchen and even a Polaroid of an unidentified lad's naked, lacerated butt, labelled "7/10/77 sink accident"). He's addicted to excess and clutter and would rather answer any either-or question with "both." He makes an introspective, overwhelming obsession out of any physical task, and talks in awesome detail about the efficiency hacks he's discovered in order to allow him to serve 900 dishes from a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet.

Shopsin's memoir is eclectic and sometimes frustrating -- as when he recounts the stories of the friends whom he has written out of his life for some ancient sleight, right after telling you about the close personal relationship he once enjoyed with them and the recipes they inspired for him.

But this book is just purely magic. It's a manifesto for cranky, lovable, excessive individualism. It's a call-to-arms to woo the muse of the odd and thumb your nose at convention. And it's got some damned tasty recipes.

Seven ounces is the perfect size for a hamburger. One thing that people don't understand is that when a portion size is too big, it is just bigger, not better. When I am served an 8-ounce burger, I recognize that it is a nice idea -- somebody is trying to give me a lot for my money. But the truth is that I don't really want an 8-ounce burger. It is too much. And when you are eating something that is too much, there comes a point where you're not enthusiastic about it anymore. You can't even taste it. After a lot of consideration, I have determined that 7 ounces is the perfect burger size.
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, Shopsin's

See also:
* A small and beautiful restauranteur
* Eccentric diner-menu infodesign


  1. Okay – I never comment on these things but I saw this one and I just had to. I don’t know why people insist on making this place out to be so cool and kitschy. The food is terrible, the establishment is dirty, and the staff is rude. I have never been to a place where the point is to make you feel unwelcome and then everyone laughs and it’s like “oh that’s how it is there”. I would never recommend this place to anyone and it makes me sad that I keep seeing this place mentioned with a fondness for the owner’s oddities. They don’t deserve your business. And as for this book … whatever this guy has got going on, trust me it is nothing to aspire to.

  2. The one time I ate in his restaurant on Houston Street, the cat walked through my plate. Net result: I got a gross meal but a lifetime story.
    Not bad.

  3. I’m not sure how you can say that he establishment is dirty — the one depicted in Calvin Trillan’s article, and the two depicted in “I Like Killing Flies” have ceased to exist.

  4. When I lived in Manhattan, I was always fairly puzzled by the mystique of the place (the old West Village one). The food never impressed, and the ambiance made it feel very much what one pal called it: Serendipity for slummers.

  5. I used to live around the corner from Shopsin’s when it was on the corner of Bedford and Morton in the west Village. I went there a couple times to meet friends who were as gaga as Cory obviously is over Kenny’s ‘eccentricities’. I thought some of the sandwiches were okay, but most everything else was crap: too many ingredients, overspiced, no nuance. And yes, the place was filthy, with stacks of old newspapers and magazines all over the place, boxes of dirty toys and roaches.

    Kenny finally banned me for wearing a tie to lunch (I don’t have to wear ties; I just like to spruce it up on occasion). Booted by a slob in filthy jeans, sagging t-shirt and suspenders. Warm? Exuberant? That’s hilarious. Shopsin is a rude, closed-minded loudmouth, devoid of grace and style. The secret of his success has never been his food; he has been indulged by a coterie of hipsters and literary folk who like feeling all smug and special over the fact that they’ve been allowed to live in Kenny’s world. I’ve seen Shopsin berate and eject bewildered ‘nobodies’ much to the delight of his smirking regulars. It’s the theater, not the food; don’t confuse the two.

  6. Shopsin’s isn’t an “insult establishment”, though it does get some people interested because of th quirks of the. It’s famous because of the food, and the way it fits Greenwich Village’s character.

    The “Eat Me” book is awesome. Buy it.

  7. Looks like the place moved from Greenwich Village to the lower east side. I predict it’ll be in Brooklyn in 5-10 years.

  8. Stuff like this is a good part of the reason I could never live in New York – a $14 hot dog served with a side of verbal abuse doesn’t appeal to me in the least.

  9. like Aldous, I also used to live around the corner from Shopsin’s when it was in the Village and ate there a few times. I always enjoyed the food, and never got slammed by owner or his wife (in fact, they were always pretty nice to me; maybe because I even brought my mom there one time when she was visiting), but I wasn’t a big regular, mostly because they were usually closed by the time I was really hungry. But I always liked the food, especially the soups and anything Mexican-influenced (where overly spiced isn’t as big a problem).

  10. @#13
    Don’t confuse having the option to eat in some ridiculous high priced establishment with some sort of requirement to. You can easily live in NYC and never go to shopsins, Peter Luger’s or the soup nazi. Personally, I like the cheap diner on 2nd ave. just south of st. mark’s. The perrogi’s there are awesome and all the food is as cheap as you can find in any other US city. Stop hating on New York.

  11. Here‘s a great article from a couple of days ago abour Kenny, Shopsin’s, and Eat Me.

    Don’t miss the video within. He makes Mac and Cheese Pancakes and explains their origin.

  12. @16

    Are you talking about Veselka? Their pierogis are fantastic. But maybe you’re not, because Veselka is NORTH of St. Mark’s Place.

  13. The diner on 2nd below st Mark’s sounds like BH Dairy, which is still there, still cheap, still delicious,and still a good blend of affectionate and surly.

    The whole Shopsin’s phenomena has always interested me; I never ate there, so I can’t speak to the food quality issue, but people do seem to like feeling they’ve gotten on the good side of someone with a marked bad side, so that thrill probably plays a part as well. NY loves its characters, and if people want to pay a price for that, well, it’s not much crazier than some of the other things they pay inexplicably premium prices for (10 dollar beers, 100 dollar burgers, $3000 dollar studios, etc).

  14. #13: “a $14 hot dog served with a side of verbal abuse doesn’t appeal to me in the least.””


    I grew up on NY’s LES and I’ve always felt that you needed to be a masochist (or maybe a sadist, too) to be a lifer. No thanks for me, I love myself (and others) too much! I now live in sunny CA!

    This sort of thing does seem to have an appeal, from soup nazis to crabby itamae who demand that you “trust me.” Maybe that says something about our insecurity with our food culture. But I suspect that the true fans are the chefs who might be jealous at the power they wield!

  15. A $14 hot dog from Shopsins is nearly as sinful as a $5 cup of coffee from Starbucks. The only difference is one is an individual, and the other is a corporate clone.

  16. @18, 19, 20,

    It is BH Dairy. What a rad spot. The counter guys are really nice, the food is perfect comfort food, prices cheap and the mix of younger hipster / older “real” new yorkers is refreshing. Can’t think of many other spots that live up to my idealised 70s NYC fantasy.

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