My friend Ned likes to hang out in art galleries. He likes to discuss the arts — well, he likes to argue about them — with artists, gallery owners, collectors, and unwary culture lovers who wander into many of the Crossroads' lively art venues.
Last week, he took me to lunch at one of his favorite hangouts, the Pi art gallery and coffee shop at 419 East 18th Street, just east of Grinders. When owners Jody and Michael Wilkins bought the two-story brick building four years ago, they initially thought of turning the urban space into their loft home because most of their five children were grown. But after installing a glamorous kitchen (with baroque cabinetry and shiny appliances that would be at home in a Hallbrook mansion), Jody Wilkins had an epiphany. "This neighborhood is great for retail but not for living. It can get pretty noisy, and there's not a lot of parking."
Wilkins first started brewing up coffee and offering pastries to customers who wandered into the gallery. This expanded into simple but stylish breakfasts — croissants and a breakfast burrito with chorizo, eggs, queso and homemade salsa. And last week, she began offering lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., though she keeps the breakfast items handy for artistic types who don't get out of bed until noon.
"My motto is 'seriously simple,'" says Wilkins, who last Thursday was serving a limited menu of soups (crab corn chowder or winter vegetable), one or two sandwiches and a salad. Ned and I shared the soups and split a sandwich of turkey, avocado, roasted red peppers and smoked mozzarella; there also was a fine Greek orzo salad with tomatoes, onions and feta. For dessert, I had a slice of warm apple pie, and Ned polished off a wedge of cheesecake.
"We make almost everything here, but a friend bakes our cheesecakes, and a lady baker makes our pies," Wilkins says.
The art, meanwhile, consisted of paintings by Susi Lulaki. Many years ago, I worked for Susi when she and her then-husband, Yannis Vantzos, co-owned the Athena restaurant on Broadway.
That venue was a restaurant that had occasional art shows. Wilkins insists that her place isn't a restaurant but an art gallery. It's just one where you can look at art over a cup of coffee. Or a piece of Pi.