Smooth or chunky, hold the crust

SUN JOURNAL

Restaurant: Peanut Butter & Co. in Greenwich Village is a selective indulgence, a sweet lunchtime escape to comfort food and nostalgia.

January 31, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Restaurants come and go so quickly here that a first-year anniversary is a milestone to be celebrated under almost any circumstances.

But the odds against Peanut Butter & Co. seemed particularly long when it opened in December 1998.

The Greenwich Village restaurant serves, well, peanut butter. It has 15-plus varieties of peanut butter sandwiches and five peanut butter-flavored desserts. Fresh-ground peanut butter in various flavors is available to go in 16-ounce jars.

The menu features milk and egg creams, not alcohol, usually the big profit item for a restaurant. In fact, an average meal at Peanut Butter & Co. costs about $7, which makes it one of the cheapest sit-down lunches in Manhattan.

Cheap and filling, note the customers who flock to this small restaurant near New York University. The sandwiches, offered in an array of combinations -- and, of course, with the option of smooth or chunky -- come with a side of potato chips and carrot sticks. "And yes, we'll cut the crusts off for you," the menu notes.

But don't look for mom in the kitchen, although the owner's mother helped out in the first hectic months. The man behind Peanut Butter & Co., Lee Zalben, is 26, still in his salad days. Yet he thinks peanut butter may be to the next decade what coffee was to the 1990s.

And if that makes him the next Starbucks, so be it.

A graduate of Vassar University, Zalben worked in advertising at News Corp. and Hachette Filipacchi Magazines Inc. when he first came to New York. A job as an associate publisher at some magazine seemed likely, almost inevitable, at the rate he was climbing the corporate ladder.

But Zalben harbored a secret desire to work for himself. In March 1998, he was walking down Sullivan Street when he spotted an empty storefront and said: "That would be a great place for my peanut butter restaurant."

He quit his job two weeks later.

Zalben had always liked peanut butter. As a boy growing up in Philadelphia, he had eaten it out of the jar with his finger. In college, he had organized peanut butter sandwich contests, and his concoctions almost always won.

But friends and family were, at best, cautious about his plans to open a peanut butter restaurant. "Do you really know what you're doing?" several people asked.

"Even my closest friends didn't get it until we opened up," Zalben admits. "But the first time they saw a 40-year-old guy in a suit come in and order a Fluffernutter sandwich, and they saw the look of delight that crossed his face, they said, `Oh, now I get it.' "

The opening generated international publicity from the start. It was just too delicious -- a peanut butter restaurant! In New York City! But the test for Zalben was to continue selling $5 peanut butter sandwiches after the novelty had worn off.

The New York Times ran a taste test, asking kids what they thought of Zalben's version of their favorite. Results were mixed. Ed Levine, author of the "New York Eats More" guidebook and a restaurant reviewer, was more enthusiastic.

"Lee Zalben deserves a MacArthur `genius' award or just a seat in the corner with a permanent dunce cap," Levine said in his review, broadcast in July.

"After three trips down to Zalben's storefront for an Elvis [a grilled peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich, served with or without bacon], I've decided to offer Zalben my version of the MacArthur. It's called the McNosh."

A small, rectangular space, Peanut Butter & Co. looks casual and homey, but its decor could not be more calculated. The warm yellow walls are meant to evoke a kitchen or a classroom; the sturdy wooden tables and Windsor chairs are comfortable, but not linked to a specific era.

Other "nostalgia-themed" restaurants evoke a single decade, Zalben said, but peanut butter is a childhood universal. (Unless one suffers from peanut allergies.) At Peanut Butter & Co., the soundtrack jumps from Motown to '80s rock to '50s rock 'n' roll.

The restaurant also banks on the continuing popularity of so-called "comfort foods," a trend that has been waxing and waning in restaurants since the late 1980s.

"Six years ago, it was roasted chicken, meat loaf and mashed potatoes," Zalben says. "I think it needed to come back. There was a hole to be filled. People have started fusing ethnic and comfort foods."

A few items on the menu at Peanut Butter & Co. have an ethnic flavor -- the spicy peanut butter is a combination of peanut butter, grilled chicken and pineapple, which reviewer Levine says goes down better if one thinks of it as American satay. It also is possible to eat peanut butter-free, choosing grilled cheese, tuna salad or chicken salad.

But the sandwiches run heavily to sweet complements -- expensive jams and jellies, vanilla cream cheese, Nutella, Fluffernutter and orange marmalade.

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