Food + Drink + Life + Health + Places + Travels

Farewell, Yaffa Cafe.

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Photo: ‘Open All Night, East Village, NYC’ by Shawn Hoke

I woke up this morning to the sad news—delivered by the excellent EV Grieve blog—that Yaffa Cafe has officially ceased to exist. EV Grieve had previously reported that their iconic St. Mark’s Place mural had, bizarrely, been covered by a Google ad, with a follow-up that its closure was temporary pending necessary renovations and the possible elimination of the back garden. “Closed for renovations” is almost never a good sign to see in a window in NYC (How many places reopen after closing “for renovations”?), but Yaffa is an East Village mainstay. Through all of the upheaval and turnover of St. Mark’s Place over the past couple of decades, it has held on, twinkling Christmas lights ablaze, open all nite—and day. I truly believed it would reopen.

The first time I went to Yaffa Cafe was in the summer of 1992. My friend Brian, who I’d met several years earlier through the penpal section in a Cure fanzine, was dating a very cool girl who lived in lower Manhattan. I was a high school student in upstate New York at the time, and solo trips to NYC—ones that didn’t involve going to see my father—were still a relatively new thing for me. We all met up at one of her friend’s apartments on the Lower East Side (it was a beautiful dump, that apartment, the kind of wonderfully cheap, unrenovated pre-war space that’s now next to impossible to find), and it was decided that we should go to Yaffa for brunch. I think we went back three times over the next 48 hours. A $4 sunshine burger platter with a salad (and that glorious carrot dressing!) was just as delicious at 2AM as it was at 4PM, so why not?

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Photo: ‘New York, 2012’ by Mark & Andrea Busse

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Photo: Yaffa Cafe

I fell in love with Yaffa at first sight. The decor was exactly how I wanted my bedroom to look: ’80s thrift store curbside postpunk Rococo dirtbag Pee-wee’s Playhouse-meets-Victorian brothel glamor. As Jeremiah Moss describes it, “The place hasn’t really changed since 1987. The booths are upholstered in leopard and zebra print, the fabric rotting from years of wear. The walls are covered in various wallpapers—fruit, vegetables, flowers. Plastic grapes hang from the ceiling. And there’s also this.” Ahh, the hypnotic oil fountain. How I loved thee. Out back, there was a magical garden that seemed impossibly removed from the rest of the city.

The patrons were just as thrilling as the interior. Punks, goths, queens, freaks and weirdos, laughing together, drinking tea and eating fries. It felt like heaven to teenage Anna, like what I imagined life in NYC would resemble for me someday. And so, Yaffa became a staple for me. My place, my people. When I was in college just north of the city, I’d take the Metro North train down all the time to see bands. Back then it seemed like shows never let out until well past the last train back to White Plains, so there as a lot of time to kill until morning. Countless nights were spent over cheesecake and coffee at Yaffa, waiting for the sun to come up and signal a sleep-deprived subway ride to Grand Central.

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Photo: ‘Yaffa Cafe, 1995’ by Leo London

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Yaffa Cafe never stopped feeling like a special place to me. A few years ago, my friend Jenna and I went to see Echo & the Bunnymen together, and there was no question that the only place that made sense for a pre-show dinner was Yaffa. Jenna wrote great a blog post about our outing that night, and reading it now fills me with so many bittersweet feelings. What other thing in NYC has been a part of my life for so many years? Certainly no other restaurant. I think the last time I was at Yaffa was about a year ago, with Evan—that’s when I took the photo above. We went after seeing Johnny Marr play around the corner at Webster Hall. The sunshine burger was just as good as ever, and I was still in love with the red lights, the floral wallpaper, the dusty plastic grapes, the crazy zebra contact paper on the tables, and the drawings of naked ladies in the bathroom. I still kind of want my bedroom to look like that. Yaffa was a constant, unchanging comfort of a place. I am so very sad to see it go.

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Photos: Yaffa Cafe

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26 Comments

  • Reply Joanna October 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Aw man. It will be sorely missed. As a native New Yorker, there are a lot of places that I never imagined would disappear, despite all the crazy change.

  • Reply Jessica@CapeofDreams October 2, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    You write a beautiful description of the place. If I were not married, I would totally decorate my bedroom this way!

  • Reply Colleen October 2, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    What a bummer! That place looks totally awesome

  • Reply Nancy October 2, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    Man, that’s a bummer. I went to NYU so while Yaffa wasn’t my mainstay, I went there plenty of times and that mural will always be iconic for me. 7A was my jam so when that closed, I felt what you are feeling for Yaffa!

    • Reply Anna @ D16 October 3, 2014 at 9:58 am

      I think I only went to 7A once or twice, if you can believe it! I was always at Yaffa and Stingy Lulu’s…may they both rest in peace.

  • Reply lau October 2, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    what a lovely tribute, anna. it makes me long for and miss a place i’ve never been.

  • Reply Bob October 3, 2014 at 12:43 am

    Was Brian a shorter stocky Italian guy who collected everything Cure related? Did he end up working at Record Runner, or Rebel Rebel at some point? If it is him, it’s extra weird as I was just thinking of him while watching The Cure In Orange at BAM the other day. Your Yaffa post is amazing, and every word is true. Those pictures make me feel bad I haven’t been there in years. If only we could go back in time and hug all those places we took for granted.

    • Reply Anna @ D16 October 3, 2014 at 9:56 am

      That’s not the same guy, but I also know the Brian you’re talking about! I’m pretty sure he worked at Record Runner, which is where we first met—but quickly discovered we had friends in common from Curefriends/Other Voices. I haven’t thought about Brian in a long time. What a nice guy. He knew exactly which Cure records I was looking for, and he’d set them aside for me if they turned up. I’ll never forget how excited I was when he found me a copy of Kiss Me with the orange vinyl bonus EP included. 🙂

      I went to the Cure in Orange screening at BAM, too! SO MUCH FUN.

  • Reply julia October 3, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I love places like that. They are getting harder and harder to find. Someone needs to document them in a beautiful book. Your photos are gorgeous.

    • Reply Anna @ D16 October 3, 2014 at 9:52 am

      Hi Julia, except for the picture of Evan, these aren’t my photos. There are linked credits under each one. 🙂

    • Reply Tim Hoppe July 10, 2019 at 6:15 am

      Oh man. Yaffa was a destination.

  • Reply Rita October 3, 2014 at 9:26 am

    I haven’t been there since my ’20s but it made a strong impression on me. I first went with a vegetarian friend and was introduced to hummus and pita – an exotic food for an italian american from Queens. So sad to see it go. Look forward to meeting you at the conference this weekend btw!

  • Reply Summer October 3, 2014 at 11:55 am

    I’ve never been to Yaffa, I don’t live in NYC…in fact, I’m on the West Coast. But your description of the place and your loss makes me sad and miss the fact that I will never be able to go there. How do these things happen? I’m okay with change, but places like Yaffa should be places that stick around forever! (and Google ad? poo)

  • Reply missy October 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Wow, I used to go to Yaffa and Stingy Lulu’s all the time when I was in school in Brooklyn. Good memories. This was one of my introductions to NYC in general, wild, crazy, lower east. Sad to see it go.

  • Reply Florian October 4, 2014 at 2:41 am

    I really like your posts about NYC, like this one and the one about the big textile sign. Sorry I can’t empathize, due to absolute ignorance about the places. You really transport the urban experience! So thank you for that!

  • Reply Jessica Funaro October 4, 2014 at 2:59 am

    That carrot dressing was in stiff competition with the carrot dressing at Dojo, also gone from St. Marks… I miss you New York.

  • Reply Amy @ The American-Made Guide to Life October 4, 2014 at 4:44 am

    I know. I read about this the other day and was like, “Is the East Village going the way of the dodo bird?” What’s next? 7B?

  • Reply Cristina October 6, 2014 at 5:50 am

    This is so, so sad. I can’t believe it.

  • Reply Jannike October 6, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    So sad. My sister introduced me to Yaffa when I was 16 years old and it was my main hang when I moved into the city in the 90s. I even brought my Montreal boyfriend there for dinner his first night in NY. I think it freaked him out 🙂

  • Reply Lisa October 9, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Hello from Vancouver, BC, Canada!

    In 2000 on my first trip to NY (hopefully we will be back soon) we stayed with my super cool artist/designer friend around the corner from this place and it became for the 10 days our spot to start and end our days. It felt very New York to me. I still have the matchbook!

  • Reply runswithscissors October 15, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Found this on Epifurious:
    Ginger Carrot Miso Salad Dressing

    3 tablespoons neutral oil (such as peanut, canola or grapeseed)

    1/4 cup rice vinegar

    3 tablespoons miso paste

    1 tablespoon sesame oil

    3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into big chunks

    1-inch long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks

    A few splashes of grapefruit juice

    Put all the ingredients in a food processor (or in my case a Ninja) and pulse it a few times until it is chunky-smooth. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Can serve immediately or refrigerate for a few days (doubt it will last long though).

  • Reply Ileana October 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you for that wonderful tribute to the Yaffa Cafe. It was one of those iconic neighborhood mainstays that epitomized the East Village when it was real. Our neighborhood is losing its authenticity fast. A victim of the mallefication/disneyfication of New York City.

  • Reply Heather M November 2, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Summer of 92 is exactly when I first went there, too! I was 20 and you described my experience with the place perfectly. I moved away in 96 and find that when I come back to visit I can’t quite make myself wander over to the East Village. I love having it in memory, though, so glad I got to be there back then.

  • Reply nellie November 19, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    wow. i’m so sad! yaffa was a mainstay of my teenage years. i loved it so much. i loved that it was affordable and even as a high school student i could enjoy a decent lunch there. i loved that the decor never changed. i made so many memories there with friends and even brought my husband (then boyfriend) who also fell in love with it. yaffa cafe– you will be missed! thanks for sharing this news, anna. i had no idea!

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