Places that Matter

Garden Cafeteria (former, now Wing Shoon Restaurant)

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Garden Cafeteria (former, now Wing Shoon Restaurant)
Marina Gan
Former Garden Cafeteria interior, Nancy Starrels, courtesy Eldridge St. Project
A storied Lower East Side gathering place
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Place Matters Profile

By Emma Jacobs

Partly by accident, and partly on the strength of an excellent Jewish menu, the Garden Dairy Cafeteria found itself at the center of Jewish intellectual life on the Lower East Side.

The corner of Rutgers and Broadway was once at the heart of a thriving community of Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back when the Yiddish papers still printed daily, and their Yiddish-speaking audience still filled the Lower East Side, the Garden Cafeteria served as a meeting-place for a crowd of Jewish intellectuals, along with the lively neighborhood crowd.

According to a biographical sketch of Charles Metzger published in 1967, Metzger opened the Garden Cafeteria in June of 1941. Originally from Austria, Metzger was born in 1897, and immigrated to the United States in 1911. Initially, he served up meals to customers in Harlem before he moved his operations south to the Lower East Side. "He’s a symbol of a plain guy," Gabriele Werfeli, a Swiss editor from Warsaw, said of the owner. "Former waiter made a place that everybody could come in. A literary man could come in, a writer, or a longshoreman could come in, as long as he's a mensch." The Cafeteria was open 24 hours a day to cater to the schedules of Americans during the war years and Metzger found himself with an immediate success. Eventually, the management broke through one of the walls of the building to add more space. The restaurant employed one waiter and one waitress who served the diners their meals.

The cafeteria was strictly dairy in keeping with Jewish dietary laws. It was self service. Customers came in and took a ticket as they entered from the man who sat on a high stool by the revolving door. The man behind the counter punched the ticket with the price of each dish the patron ordered so that the customers, who often lingered for hours, could pay for everything they had ordered at once when they finally departed. "They'd have a cup of coffee," recalls one of Metzger’s employees, Bert Feinberg, "and they'd sit and they'd sit and they'd talk. Around about eleven-o-clock the lunch hour would start to start and they'd come in. And you needed the table and they wouldn't get up. So I would go around with a wet rag and wipe the tables down so it was wet so they couldn't lean down on anything, and literally push them out, because the lunch was so fabulous here we needed a table. And then as soon as the lunch was over, they were back." The cafeteria was filled from early morning until past midnight.