Remembering Kenny Shopsin, a New York City Legend
On Tuesday morning, Tamara Shopsin confirmed news that her father, the iconic owner of Shopsin's in the Lower East Side, has died. Opened in 1971 as Shopsin's General Store at its first location in the West Village, Kenny Shopsin's lunch counter, now located at Essex Street Market, gained renown for its extensive menu and its grumpy-but-beloved self-taught cook who embodied a New York City spirit that now feels lost.
Shopsin's singular impact was evident this weekend, as New Yorkers gradually heard the news and took to social media to articulate what the man meant to him and to the city.
Comedian John Hodgman posted a photo of a Shopsin's shirt on Instagram, reflecting on Kenny's infamous no-photos policy. "I have no photos of him in the restaurant because why? What photo could capture everything I ate and learned from him," Hodgman wrote. "Why interrupt those moments trying to capture them, rather than simply be in them? Some people would call that one of Kenny’s rules. But it was a lesson."
In 2002, Calvin Trillen wrote a New Yorker article—you could call it the article—on Shopsin and his lunch counter, which Trillen had frequented for years, working his way through the famously inscrutable 900-plus-item menu that included such dishes as Cotton Picker Gumbo Melt Soup, Hanoi Hoppin John with Shrimp, Bombay Turkey Cloud Sandwich, Cuban Bean Polenta Melt, and "tomato soup the way Sarah likes it."
Trillen notes that Kenny despised publicity so much (he had a hard-to-enforce, no-writing-about Shopsin's rule that Trillen earned a special exemption from) that he would make up stories to keep people away.
"When Kenny gets a phone call from a restaurant guidebook that wants to include Shopsin's, he sometimes says that the place is no longer in operation, identifying himself as someone who just happens to be there moving out the fixtures," Trillen wrote. "...To Kenny's way of thinking, a complimentary mention is worse than a knock. It brings review-trotters—the sort of people who go to a restaurant because somebody told them to. Kenny finds that review-trotters are often "petulant and demanding."
In 2008, Shopsin released a cookbook called Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, with over one hundred recipes from the restaurant and chapter titles like "The Story of Shopsin's Turkey, or Why I Hate the Health Department."
Shopsin is survived by his five children. As confirmed by his daughter Tamara, Shopsin's will reopen for business on Wednesday. If you have a memory of Kenny or his wife, Eve, who died in 2003, the Shopsins website encourages you to share it.