It was not my typical Saturday night. For one thing, I was alone in Manhattan. My wife and the kids were busy: Catherine and our younger daughter at a bat mitzvah in Sunset Park, our older daughter who knows where with friends.
The sun was going down, a winter wind picking up. Following an errand near the Flatiron Building, I wandered for a bit, aimlessly for the most part but with the West Village beckoning in the back of my brain. There’s a wonderful bookstore there, I knew, to keep warm and occupied. And maybe I’d find a cozy-looking neighborhood spot for a bowl of soup and a glass of wine. I had a picture of the place in mind but wasn’t sure it actually existed. Brick walls, but not in an annoying way, small but not cramped, humming with life and not a television to be seen.
Soon I arrived at Three Lives & Co., perhaps the city’s most charming bookstore. I took a collection of stories by Ottessa Moshfegh (she of my current literary obsession) across the creaky wood floor to the corner to contemplate before talking myself out of buying it. There are already too many stacked and unread books at home in our Brooklyn apartment.
Then it was back on the street in search of that coziest of imagined cafés. That’s when I cold-walked down Grove Street, scarf whipping against my cheek, and discovered the place that would—I don’t think it’s overstating it—change New York yet again for me.
Buvette. I know, I know, it’s not exactly a secret. (Our own dining and drinking experts have praised the spot many times before, including here and here.) And yet, this was my first time. My first time stepping into the golden light from a series of bulbs reflecting off a silver-painted tin ceiling. Taking in the perfectly pitched re-creation of a French bistro. Finding a wood-backed chair at the far end of a smooth, stone bar with the help of a waiter who, with his messy, dirty-blond ponytail flopping, brought to mind a hipster Fabio.
I sat one empty seat away from an older, fit fellow I’ll call Crazy Cat for reasons that will eventually become clear. A kind-faced woman in a crisp white oxford handed me a menu and another document, not so much a wine list as a drinks bible. It’s an actual book and it can be overwhelming to philistines like me. Fortunately, the energetic, wisecracking, bowling-pin-solid bartender took pity and found a medium-bodied red to go with my coq au vin. (After skimming the perfectly traditional menu, I’d scrapped thoughts of soup for something heartier.)
I had a picture of the place in mind but wasn’t sure it actually existed. Brick walls, but not in an annoying way, small but not cramped, humming with life and not a television to be seen.
Before the food came crunchy, flaky bread glistening with olive oil. And the wine. The wine! (Insert chef’s kiss emoji here.) By the time the meal arrived in a tiny, warm Dutch oven bearing the most tender mushrooms and Burgundy-soaked chicken, I was falling, falling. Buvette had already gotten me.
And that was before bonding with Crazy Cat.
I’d noticed CC as I was climbing onto my barstool. He was older, maybe in his 70s, and also alone. He wore a pressed blue denim button-down, and I had to look twice to make sure he was not, in fact, Christopher Plummer. He was not. But he was watching a rugby match on his iPhone. And he knew his way around the booze bible. Between sips he’d fire off a bon mot and Bowling Pin behind the bar fired back. They had a routine. Crazy Cat was a regular.
When a young woman’s friend arrived and needed space at the bar, I was shuffled from my perch to make room for her and landed in the seat next to CC. He apologized for his phone, explaining this was a special match—Wales versus Italy in what’s essentially the World Cup for rugby. Except he called them “the Italianos!” with a grand flourish. I told CC not to worry, I have my own sporting problems (go O’s!). He laughed genuinely and introduced me to his chum in charge of drinks. Bowling Pin might just be the best bartender in New York. Funny, gently ribbing, and clever—he told a story about biking through a blizzard, arriving at the only open bar in the city, and ordering what Hemingway might’ve had: a coffee with brandy. BP knows what you want before you do.
He told a story about biking through a blizzard, arriving at the only open bar in the city, and ordering what Hemingway might’ve had: a coffee with brandy.
When it was time for more wine, I followed CC’s lead. That’s when Bowling Pin poured us Chat Fou (French for “crazy cat”), a compelling, priced-to-move Côtes Du Rhône. That glass prompted Crazy Cat (the person, not the wine) to tell me about the Northern California vineyard his family had once run. Cloudless azure skies, looming hills, juicy rows of shaded grapes—I leaned over CC’s shoulder for a better angle of his phone photos.
Now that we were new old friends—I’d learned that CC had run successful businesses, was married to a sculptor of note, and had kids who are doctors—I felt reasonably comfortable enough to ask him for some advice. My kids are both essentially teenagers, see, and CC had been through all that. All the pure love of their youth, I wondered, was that gone forever, replaced by something more complicated, more grown-up?
C-Cat opened a hand, palm facing the tin ceiling. “Have you ever tried catching a butterfly?” he asked, knowing the answer. “Can’t be done. Just be. Be there. They’ll land again.”
Crazy Cat opened a hand, palm facing the tin ceiling. “Have you ever tried catching a butterfly?” he asked.
Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was Bowling Pin’s precise, practical bar-side manner. Maybe it was the sudden, unexpected good company, good cheer, and good food. But at that moment, CC’s words sounded eminently wise to me. And more than that, all of New York City seemed, then, to be opening like CC’s hand: welcoming, warm, there when you need it.