It’s hard to believe it, but Cafeteria, the beloved Chelsea staple, is turning 25 years old. Last week, the Seventh Avenue institution celebrated with an epic bash that brought out longtime customers and a new generation of nightlife faces. The night welcomed Joey Arias, Josè Xtravaganza, Zeta, Carrie Dragshaw, Larsen Thompson, Brian Atwood, Jake Deutsch, Ann Dexter-Jones, Sophie Sumner, Sailor Brinkley-Cook, Katya Tolstova, Logan Horne, Eric Rutherford, Victoria Britto, Jerome Lamar, Dianne Brill, Isaac Boots, Corey Reese, and many more, for a neighborhood reunion and a toast to a place where every good New Yorker has fond memories. We checked in with Cafeteria Partners, Susan Leonard, Stacy Pisone, and Mark Amadei to reflect on this milestone.
Why do you think Cafeteria has endured for 25 years?
Cafeteria’s concept is for everyone: its comfort food, it’s fun, nostalgic eats. It’s become generational from where we started, with our children and friends’ children who were raised on the mac n’ cheese, french fries, pancakes, and fried chicken who now come as adults with their own friends and their parents. Cafeteria remains consistent for everyone.
What have been some of the most memorable moments over the past 25 years?
Starting right from opening night, Cafeteria became a magical, inclusive, and creative vortex. Filming of Sex in the City, Mariah Carey singing Happy Birthday to a guest, playing Danity Kane’s big hit Damaged and they started doing the choreography from the video… Paulina Rubio once came in and graciously said ‘Hello’ to all the kitchen staff in Spanish and they were so grateful. Amanda Lepore signed her menu cover and gave it to a young transgender guest and he became very emotional. Queen Latifah came in and did an old school rap to a table she knew, one of the Wayans brothers and the whole restaurant stood up and applauded! Another time, Dave Chappelle, Charlie Murphy, Cedric, Anthony Anderson, and Bill Burr came in after finishing the Dave Chappelle Show and sat at a big table and riffed all night.
Cafeteria is a place where people come to be seen. What are some of the great fashion moments over the years?
So many nights after the clubs with all the nightlife icons. Amanda Lepore’s corseted outfits, Susanne Bartsch always in a theme, Richie Rich wearing his Heatherette, Kenny Kenny doing Kenny, J. Lo dressed as a skelton for Halloween looking fabulous, Paris and Nikky Hilton always glamorous…
Who have been some of the celeb regulars?
Fred Schneider, Susan Sarandon, Bruce Willis, Mariah Carey, J. Lo, who’s often with her sister, Harrison Ford, Cyndi Lauper, Puffy, Nicole Richie, Lorraine Bracco, Julia Roberts…
Has any food item remained on the menu for the whole time?
Absolutely! All our classics—although they have evolved a bit. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fried chicken and waffles, mac n’ cheese, Cobb salad, tomato basil soup with grilled cheese croutons, the classic burger and fries, the best milkshakes, and nostalgic desserts. And we still serve the Cafeteria Cosmo! We even have a frozen one now!
You were open during September 11th and survived the pandemic. How did those two historic moments in NYC impact Cafeteria?
During some of NYC’s darkest times, Cafeteria remained a constant for everyone. We always tried to be the first one to open and the last to close. Our neighbors and community knew they could always count on us as a beacon of light that would be there. Consistency and longevity has created loyalty within our community.
Who is your longest running employee?
Our kitchen manager has been with us since we opened. Some preps and cooks have been there for over 20 years! We also have management who have been with us for over 13 years.
Chelsea has changed dramatically over the years. Do you think it’s better now or do you miss the old days?
We have certainly seen the changes over the years. In one way, we miss the New York night life and the events that existed. We still miss Barneys! However, Chelsea has evolved into a much more diverse neighborhood now and the community embodies everything NYC is.