I thought, when I heard that the Bohemian cafeteria, Gorky's Cafe, had changed hands some months back, it would never be the same.
Would it have the warmth and the proletarian idealism that spurred Judith Markoff, the former owner, to open a restaurant in the desolate outer fringes of the garment district for the "poor people"? Would it have the Russian food that Markoff's grandmother inspired? Would the community spirit that permitted artists and jazz musicians to showcase their works be lost? Would the wonderful omelet counter be demolished? Would the ghost of Gorky, the revolutionary novelist and playwright, to whom the cafe pays tribute, vanish?
Well, the answer is n-n-no. The visible change, apart from opening hours, is that the place has gone masculine with the careless housekeeping of a bachelor pad. Gone is the neat, pristine, uncluttered Depression-era institutional look, the sensitive placement of the wall art, the feminine touch. Gone, too, is the 99-cent wee-hour breakfast. And wee-hour dining, except on weekends.
The proletarian prices are still there, and so is the Russian food--very good, too--inspired by the new owner's grandmother. The made-to-order omelets have remained exquisite. A new omelet, the Siberian, with Russian sausages and vegetables, was added to the old group, including sour cream and lox or caviar, chicken livers, vegetables, among others.
The new owner, Fred Powers, was general partner of another restaurant before plunging into his own. He fell in love with the cafeteria's concept of drawing in community events (art showings and openings, music and poetry show-casing) while bringing his ancestral Russian family recipes to the menu.
Powers has added several new items. I thoroughly enjoyed a hearty, peasant cabbage-potato soup called shchi served in a huge plastic bowl. The onion and potato piroshki were terrific with the soup.
There is Georgian chicken made with prunes and a spicy chicken made with barbecue sauce reminiscent of the deep South. Vareneki, a carrot-filled noodle made by Russian women, was especially good.
There still are the daily dinner specials ($4.95): vareneki on Monday and Thursday, blinchiki (crepes filled with meat) on Tuesday, pelmeni (meat dumplings) on Wednesday, beef stroganoff on Friday and gloubtsi (stuffed cabbage) on Saturdays.
On Sundays there is a special Russian dinner, including soup, entree (a choice of lamb stew, stuffed cabbage, mushroom vegetable casserole and others), kasha and Russian coleslaw, bread and butter ($6.95).
Lunch specials include stuffed cabbage, Georgian chicken, turkey leg in wine sauce, chicken paprika and salmon loaf.
Every day there are piroshki (meat and potato), kasha (buckwheat eaten in place of rice), and the soups--beet and cabbage borscht and the shchi .
Throughout the day there are cheese blintzes, matzo brie (eggs with matzos) and sandwiches served on excellent breads. Salads in glass bowls are embedded in ice.
Powers is particularly proud of his desserts, which include muffins (blueberry, whole wheat, whole bran, banana and chocolate), Russian sour cream coffee cake called kolachy, and carrot cake. I found them homey in a heavy-handed way. But the Belgian bitter chocolate hot fudge served with sundaes was a velvety wonder that no chocolate lover should dare to miss.
Gorky's Cafe, 536 East 8th St., Downtown. (213) 627-4060. Open 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday; 24 hours Saturday and Sunday. Reservations unnecessary. Cash only. Parking on street or pay-parking lot. Wine and beer offered. Entrees from $1.75 to $4.95.