The French dip at Minetta Tavern

Ever since I first tried the prime rib sandwich at Eataly, a little less than a year ago, I’ve had a constant, but manageable, craving for roast beef sandwiches. It hasn’t been simply a want of beef, otherwise I’d probably be hitting up something easy and cheap like Shake Shack a lot more often. No, it’s thinly sliced, tender roast beef that I want, and I think I’ve finally understood why: Arby’s.

When I was in elementary school, Friday night was often restaurant night with my family. And in the grand 80s, fast food fell into the restaurant category without a second thought. McDonald’s was the most regular destination (do you remember the pizza and tablecloth experiment?!), but for variety, we would switch it up and go to Harvey’s, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, and Arby’s. Despite those factory-curled fries, something about the shaved meat sandwiches of Arby’s felt a little bit more like real food instead of fried, frozen stuff. And sitting under the glass atrium at the front of the restaurant made it feel a little bit more fancy (?). I don’t recall that it was my favourite, so that’s not why it is the seed of my craving. I think it’s because for roughly six months, I ate Arby’s every week.

Up until I was about 10 years old, dancing was my after school activity. After that, I played sports. But for one winter, I danced and played basketball, with Wednesday night being the crossover of the two. After dancing, my mom would drive me from the ‘burbs where dance class was held all the way back to our neighbourhood in the city, where I had basketball practice at my school gym. At the corner of St. Albert Trail and the Yellowhead stood an Arby’s. Every week as we turned that corner, we stopped to get me an iced tea, curly fries, and a regular roast beef sandwich. Over 25 years later, it seems that I’m missing that Wednesday night meal. I have no other explanation beyond perhaps mild anemia.

I’ve returned to that prime rib sandwich a number of times. It really is one of the city’s best sandwiches. But for the sake of newness and variety, I recently tried the Dip at Dirty French. Although an okay sandwich, to be critical, it was too small, and the bread and beef were too tough for a French dip. I’ve read in a few places that the version at Minetta Tavern is a sleeper hit, but it’s only available at brunch and lunch. I’m one of those people who is not big on brunch (no to crowds, overpricing, and moody servers). But a weekday lunch in Greenwich Village is not possible, and it became a need to have that sandwich. With plans to visit the new Whitney Museum one Sunday, I called Minetta to see if the bar area was first-come, first-served for brunch as well, with the idea that I’d walk over after taking in Renzo Piano’s new masterpiece. I thought I could sneak in right before the end of service for my usual late afternoon Sunday br/lunch and easily find a stool. It was, replied the hostess, and when I inquired about possibly booking a table, it turns out they could seat me in the dining room at my requested time. I ate at the bar on my only previous visit (for the famous Black Label burger, which was fantastic), but I’ve always wanted to go back to eat in the dining room. Mostly because I fondly remember Peggy and Abe’s date there.

The restaurant is just what you want from something noteworthy and historic. A room that feels too small, white-clothed tables that are much too close together, and banquettes that are too shiny. The lighting is brighter than you’d want but it serves to highlight the charm of the old photographs lining the walls, the light fixtures, the floors, the other patrons. Every single other table was adorned with the burger. I wondered if my server might ask if I was sure if I wanted the French dip given that it seemed like the kitchen could only make one thing. Seemed. Because that French dip was as good as promoted. The bun was soft and spongey, easily soaking up twice its weight in jus. All the better to make a perfect bite when my teeth effortlessly made their way through the very tender, rare roast beef. Now, 25 years ago, I didn’t use Horsey sauce, but I was okay with Minetta’s dip having some horseradish to give heat and keep my palate on its toes. The burger would be more satisfying for a full-on beef craving, but the dip was exactly what I wanted and then some. And then some because of the fries. I think they might be the best fries I’ve ever had. French fries are not my preferred side carb of choice, and I usually prefer thick-cut fries (the ones at The Breslin being my favourite), but these are textbook amazeballs. Crispy outside without being too dark or greasy, tender, fluffy middles, and perfectly salted. I can’t even complain about the overabundance of tiny end-cut pieces because they were wonderful as well. A fry dipped in jus and then mayo? Made me almost as happy as curly fries did to my 10-year-old self.

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