Adam Kuban, of number four, Privet Drive, was proud to say that he was perfectly normal, thank you very much. He was the last person you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because he just didn't hold with such nonsense.
And that held especially true if such nonsense involved flocks of New Yorkers standing in snaking lines, eager to gobble up the latest overhyped must-eat, must-attend, must-read sensation. But Mr. Kuban had fallen under the spell of a witchy woman and so found himself immersed in the cauldron of nonsense bubbling around Scholastic Books headquarters in SoHo. It didn't hurt that the Harry Potterobsessed charmstress he was meeting that evening had sweetened the deal, luring yours truly to the Half-Blood Prince release with the promise of a burger at nearby Fanelli's Cafe before the sixth Harry Potter book went on sale at midnight.
Like the Leaky Cauldron in the book series, with its hidden entrance to a wizard strip mall, Fanelli's is a gateway to different world. It is the second-oldest continuously operating restaurant in New York City and a throwback to a pre-glitz SoHo. As the Historic Shops and Resaurants of New York says:
By the Civil War, luxury hotels and fashionable emporia ... did a brisk business along the stretch of the thoroughfare that passed through what a century and half later would come to be known as SoHo. ... A five story brick building at the corner Mercer and Prince Street was typical, with a porterhouse in its storefront and an expensive brothel upstairs. It had replaced a more modest wooden structure that housed a grocer and spirits dealer as far back as 1847 a genealogy that allows Fanelli's Cafe on the site today to call itself "the second oldest continuous food and drink establishment on the same site in New York."
Furthermore, the book tells us:
Calling [the] place a cafe was a smart move in 1922, at the start of Prohibition. ... The speakeasy made wine and distilled bathtub gin in the cellar, and purchased hard booze from bootleggers, keeping the stash in a secret room which can still be reached through one of the lower cupboards in the elaborately carved backbar hidden under the stairs.
Forgoing the bathtub gin, I ordered a beer and a burger, with cheese and onion, cooked medium, and took the fries option as opposed to the salad. As we sat in the "Ladies and Gents Sitting Room" and waited for our meal, we discussed the name Tom Malvolo Riddle with a tiny Hermione and her muggle mom. "How does 'Tom Marvolo Riddle' anagram to 'Lord Voldemort'," I asked. "There's just too many letters." But our burgers came before we divined the answer to the riddle.*
The burgers, yes. They were exceptionally thick and juicy, with a good beefy flavor. The grind of the meat could best be described as medium-coarse, and the patties were served on a chewy square onion roll with cheese slices melted on the bottom and top buns. They reminded my dinner companion of the fare at Corner Bistro, "but much thicker and not quite as good, but almost there." I concurred. We also agreed that the Fanelli burger was a bit too thick. I'm not a snake with a hinged jaw that can open to accommodate an overthick sandwich. We left with full bellies, satisfied but not particularly impressed. It seemed good for the neighborhood and at $8.50 for sandwich and fries, a relatively good deal for SoHo but we didn't think it was a destination burger.
Full of gruel and ale, we took our place in the book line. Entertainment for the hourlong wait was provided by a couple of preteen muggles, whose debate we eavesdropped on: One Jedi knight versus the entire U.S. military who would win? "The U.S. military is AWESOME," the older one posited. "What if it was Yoda?" countered the younger. Indeed.
We procured the weighty tome and left. And I put Fanelli's into my book as a decent place to visit when Year 7 at Hogwarts is released but probably not before then. There are plenty of burgers in New York to keep me busy, and Fanelli's wasn't magical enough to warrant a visit before J. K. Rowling's next volume materializes.
Location: 94 Prince Street (at Mercer Street; SoHo), New York City NY 10012
Getting There: Nearest trains are N/W/R at Prince or B/D/F/V/6 at Broadway-Lafayette
Cost: $8.50 for cheeseburger; option of fries or salad
Short Order: Good value. Delicious burgers, but just not magically delicious. A little too thick for my tastes, but should do you right if that's your sandwich style.
* The anagram, it turns out, is Tom Marvolo Riddle/I am Lord Voldemort.