In the restaurant business, location isn’t everything, but it’s certainly up there. To have any success luring the average New Yorker to a fringe neighborhood, your name had better be McNally or Dufresne. That’s not the case at the nine-month-old Lunchbox Food Co., a modishly rehabbed diner hunkered down between a car wash and a topless bar on the West Side Highway—an address more likely to attract drive-by than walk-in business.
All that changed, happily, with the weather. Ever since the verdant new section of Hudson River Park opened to a bedazzled public—and the rain let up—Lunchbox has found itself in the right place at exactly the right time. And it’s making the most of it, stationing a classy ice-cream cart directly across the highway to waylay unsuspecting cyclists and skaters with homemade flavors like an excellent, moussey chocolate. Behind the diner, a leafy, peaceful oasis of a backyard is equipped with a barbecue for weekly Sunday-night cookouts.
But Lunchbox offers enough enticements to merit year-round patronage. Like any self-respecting diner, this one serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it’s a rare diner that bakes its own doughnuts and idiosyncratically flavored bagels (the Parmesan harmonizes surprisingly well with the house-cured salmon at brunch). At night, bowls of Lunchbox’s house-made potato chips line the candle-strewn counter. And the restaurant sells its own line of chocolate candies, brownies, and sumptuous dessert toppings from a retail counter up front.
Even more than a burgeoning bakery and confectionery—and threat to Mr. Softee franchisees everywhere—Lunchbox Food Co. is a serious New York restaurant with a contemporary, multicultural approach. Some of the kitchen’s concoctions can get a little fussy—especially the garnishes—though judging by the juicy organic-beef burger, this is one urbane diner that hasn’t forgotten its greasy-spoon roots.
The burger’s on the lunch menu, along with a roster of creative salads and sandwiches, but it’s at dinner when things get most interesting. The menu reflects the current fad for small plates, but it does so in unusual and uncategorizable ways: Not strictly tapas or antipasti, these tidbits derive inspiration from around the globe. Order the addictively airy gougères, hollow pastry shells scented with cheese, as soon as you sit down. If it weren’t printed on the menu, we’d never know the flaky pork turnovers (empanadas, really) also harbor guava and queso blanco, but thanks to an herby chimichurri dipping sauce, they aren’t missed. And while pizza crusts have been getting competitively thinner, the grilled version here makes up for its unfashionable doughiness with excellent mozzarella and seasonal toppings like asparagus and snap peas.
In Greenmarket time, it’s not quite corn season yet, but don’t let that stop you from accelerating matters with a grilled cob slathered with aïoli, herb butter, or salsa fresca. The tomato salad is a thing of beauty: Ours featured fleshy beefsteak slices bolstering a heap of sweet red and yellow cherries, carefully seasoned and accompanied by a baked ricotta bruschetta. Fresh produce finds its way into the dense ricotta gnocchi, too, via a light mint pesto and peas that meld nicely with slivers of lemon confit and almonds.
Perfectly cooked grilled salmon is accompanied by a frilly pea-shoot salad and a saucer of zesty romesco sauce—the light, ladylike answer to Lunchbox’s two-fisted burger. The Asian-inspired grilled lemongrass chicken is a deconstructed version of lunchtime’s coconut-chicken-salad sandwich, the skewers of tender meat served alongside a dish of creamy coconut chutney and a stack of dosalike rice-flour pancakes. Similarly textured corn-flour pancakes don’t quite cut it as “tacos,” though, despite their savory fillings.
Some might consider a cheese course at a diner pretentious. Not us. Our Dutch Gouda, Spanish goat, and buttery Mahon were a fitting finale for such sophisticated food, a strong-enough draw to bring us back to this western frontier long after the ice-cream carts of summer have gone.
Lunchbox Food Co., 357 West Street (646-230-9466). Sunday through Wednesday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $6 to $10; entrées, $15 to $20. All major credit cards.