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There's a strange, cinematic kind of light in certain Nolita restaurants. I first noticed it after moving to the neighborhood in the mid-'90s, when I'd sit at a stool at Rice's original Mott Street branch, eating Vietnamese lemongrass chicken and staring out the window. Rice was one of the few businesses on the block at the time, and at night all the streets around it—Mulberry, Elizabeth, Prince—had barely any pedestrians. Even the sidewalks seemed lit by a ghostly film production crew.
Since I moved back to the area in the late '90s—with less early-bird cred this time around—I've noticed that light in a few places that opened on those blocks. It's not just the dim, sexy glow you'll get in any bistro with a half-decent sense of atmosphere; there's something more uncanny about Nolita lighting. Lovely Day definitely has it; Epistrophy too. Some now-defunct places also did, like Bistrot Margot on Prince Street, and Bread and Butter, which made the best BLTs I've ever had.
At The American, an aggressively stylized diner that appeared without much fanfare at 235 Mulberry earlier this year, the light is as Nolita as the staff: pouty, great-looking Europeans who drape themselves on the Hopperesque barstools when business is slow. Just like it can take an outsider to articulate certain elements of a culture (Cf. Tocqueville), The American uses its expat soul to advantage. The food is by no means flawless, but I've had tasty milkshakes and cheeseburgers here—topped with just Vermont cheddar or bacon, or with mushrooms and Fontina. I've also had a weird, absurd-sounding but oddly compelling take on a chicken fried steak—served schnitzel-style with a lemon wedge, and nowhere-style with a spicy celery-and-radish salad on the side. The food isn't all-American (or all-quasi-American): For instance there's a lovely salad of braised octopus, chickpea, mint and radicchio. The organizing principle, when not retro-Americana, is simple food you can eat languidly while reading the paper.
The American does depart from the Nolita ethic one one count: It opens at 8am, scandalously early for the 'hood. But you won't find the ghostly lighting at that hour—just omelettes, breakfast burritos, and the classic "lumberjack breakfast" of eggs, sausage and pancakes. If there are any real lumberjacks here though, they're well-camouflaged in Ksubi jeans and Tom Ford shades.