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Woman Around Town: Carrie Levin – Comfort Food

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The New York City restaurant scene is extremely competitive. Last week’s hot spot can easily become this week’s closing. It takes a lot to keep customers coming back day after day, year after year. Carrie Levin manages that incredible feat. For twenty-eight years she has owned and operated Good Enough to Eat on Amsterdam Avenue. Her clientele is fiercely loyal, filling the weathered wooden tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, enjoying the American comfort food that Levin prepares so well. And never before have we so needed to be reassured and consoled. No wonder Levin’s restaurant has lines out the door.

The simple offerings on Levin’s menu belie all the thought, skill, and hard work that go into perfecting each dish. Meat loaf, for example, is not just any meat loaf. (See recipe in Entertaining Around). Levin’s meatloaf, which she served at her own wedding, requires twenty-two ingredients, yet following her simple instructions is easy to prepare and well-worth the effort.

Good Enough to Eat’s environment is unpretentious where West Side neighbors sit next to celebrities and focus on the true star, the food. “A lot of actors eat here,” Levin said. “They have crazy lives. This is the place to come and be at home.”

Levin understands the actor’s life because her husband, William Perley, has been one for thirty years. He once appeared on the ABC daytime serial, One Life to Live. Cast members can often be seen in the restaurant and Levin remains a fan, breaking away at 2 p.m. most days to watch.

Levin and Perely met in 1979 when they were both working at the Russian Tea Room. At that point, Levin had already amassed a very impressive resume. Born in New York City, at age five she moved with her family to Brussels and spent a lot of time in their two small restaurants. After completing college in Aix-en-Provence, France, Levin attended Pru Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London. She returned to the U.S., worked briefly at the Russian Tea Room, and then, aided by her fluency in French, nabbed an apprenticeship under Seppi Renngli, then head chef at the Four Seasons. He remains her biggest influence and inspiration and she dedicated one of her cookbooks to him.

When she decided to open her own restaurant in 1981, she knew she wanted to create and serve “good, old-fashioned American food.” Nothing is simple about the food, however. “I took everything from my childhood that I loved,” she said. “I worked on the recipes until they were what I wanted them to be.”

For breakfast, eggs are scrambled with red onion, tomato, and dill and served with homemade biscuits and strawberry butter. The Wall Street omelette is filled with baked ham and Vermont sharp white cheddar cheese. Sweet breakfasts include pumpkin French toast and banana walnut pancakes. At lunch, salads are complex and plentiful. There is a meatloaf sandwich and a B.L.T. on dill onion bread. Dinner offerings include the famous meatloaf, a traditional turkey dinner, as well as ziti baked with four cheeses, cheddar, Parmesan, gruyere, and mozzarella.

Then, of course, there are the desserts, all baked in house. “I love American desserts!” Levin exclaimed. Her desserts are so well-loved that some customers start their meal with a slice of cake or piece of pie to make sure they don’t miss out. Cakes include coconut, Devil’s food, and carrot. Besides seasonal fruit pies, Levin serves pecan and pumpkin pie. Cookies are chocolate chip with or without walnuts, peanut butter, and oatmeal raisin.

During the years that she has been owner and chef, Levin also battled breast cancer while she and her husband raised their three sons. Bucko, 21, is now studying in China, Asa, 19, is in college, and Conner, 14, is in high school, and, among the sons, the most interested in food. “He loves food,” she said of Conner. The two watch cooking programs like Top Chef and Iron Chef, together, and she often tests her recipes on him. Levin said her husband remains her biggest support system, handling the billing, dealing with suppliers, doing repairs, among other duties. He did the illustrations for her Breakfast Cookbook.

Despite her success, Levin said these times are challenging ones for restaurateurs.  New York City regulations are often costly and create complications. Food costs have soared. Levin and her husband are hoping to buy a farm where they can grow their own food.

What does it take to be successful? Being there, being responsive to customer demands (she takes those comment cards seriously) and loving what you do.  Customers come in to give her a hug. She makes sure to stop at a table filled with tourists from France. (The restaurant attracts many tourists). And she talks fondly of her employees. “This is an extension of my home,” she said. And we are happy to make it our home, too.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: In my kitchen wearing my Costco bathrobe and socks.

Favorite Place to Shop: CPW, on Amsterdam Avenue. It’s a great clothing store just up the street and Linda Wolfe is great.

Favorite New York Sight: Central Park.

Favorite New York Moment: At Good Enough to Eat one evening, the restaurant was almost full. We had every single nationality, religion, and sexual orientation—Muslims, Mexicans, French, gay, everyone. We were handing out chocolate coins for Rosh Hashanah. That’s what I love about New York. It was really lovely.

What You Love About New York: That you can go around and every day is different and you see different things and different people. When I go home from work I take different ways and it changes all the time. It’s exciting, never boring.

What You Hate About New York: Government.

Good Enough to Eat
483 Amsterdam Avenue, at 83rd Street
212-496-0163
www.goodenoughtoeat.com

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