When Noah Bernamoff and his wife, Rae, opened Mile End in Boerum Hill, they upended decades of congealed New York deli tradition by smoking their own boutique briskets, importing Canadian bagels, and pickling their own full-sours—and, most controversially, charging for them. But the couple has made an even more provocative move at their new fast-food outpost, Mile End Sandwich, which opened in Noho late last month. Thus far, the layout of the spare, modern space has garnered as much attention as the food. In what has been variously interpreted as a risky design choice or a calculating ageist affront, the owners have taken the current craze for casual counter dining to its inevitable stripped-down conclusion and done away with the stools entirely, forcing customers, to the consternation of Jewish grandmothers everywhere, to slurp their matzo-ball soup standing up.
Not that New York is entirely unfamiliar with the concept: Mario Batali has no trouble packing the standing tables at Otto and Eataly with prosciutto-nibbling, Prosecco-swilling hordes, and even in the rarefied precincts of Madison Avenue, the very last place you’d think they’d stand for it, the well-heeled crowd has long bellied up to Sant Ambroeus’s marble bar for dainty panini.
To hear him tell it, Bernamoff actually put a lot of thought into his new shop’s furnishings. Most quick-serve spots, he points out, arrange their cramped seating along narrow ledges that ring the room. “I love sandwiches, but I hate staring at the wall,” he says. Instead, the couple commissioned their architects to construct a 23 1/2-foot-long bar-height communal table, topped with Michigan-maple butcher block. Bernamoff refers to its zigzaggy pattern as a social experiment. “I dislike rectangular communal tables,” he says, “because they force people to segment themselves by twos, which isn’t very communal.” Indeed, the shape allows for variously sized conversation clusters, and a sort of social interaction seldom encountered along your typical wall ledge.
Bernamoff does admit to sending a none-too-subtle message with the lack of seats, though. “Yes, it’s my way of telling customers I don’t want them to linger,” he says, acknowledging the challenge of keeping the traffic flowing in a fast-casual setting. The trouble with this strategy, so far, is that the two-and-a-half-hour lunch rush might not justify an all-day SRO policy. In the late afternoon and evening, when New Yorkers’ natural inclinations shift from on-the-go to take-a-load-off, Bernamoff has watched potential customers beat a hasty retreat. “I think we might be losing the experimental battle a little bit,” he says. So he’s been mulling over a Plan B—namely, “a very minimal, teeny stool, tall but small. You would lean against it—you don’t totally set up shop on it.” Still, if that comes to pass, Bernamoff envisions only ten to twelve of these lean-to seats. “It’s such a great table, it kills me to think about putting in stools,” he says. But life is compromise. You can lead a New Yorker to pickled veal tongue on pumpernickel, after all, but you just might not be able to make him stand.