Those of us who stay in town — and I always stay in town — know that high summer and, perhaps most specifically, July 4th weekend, is the best time to be in NYC. The days last forever, the nights are alive with memories and magic, the streets seemingly yours for the taking.
Of course, that was before COVID-19 came crashing down on us, destroying plans, prospects, and lives. But even if our hot town summer in the city feels different this year, there are places that can help you take a break from it all, and recapture, even temporarily, some of that sweet summertime spirit. One of the best such spots I've seen so far is a new pop-up on MacDougal Street, Dame Summer Club.
Billed as a combination English Lawn Bar and Fish & Chips Restaurant, Dame Summer Club comes courtesy of chef Ed Szymanski, formerly of Brooklyn's acclaimed Cherry Point, and frontwoman Patricia Howard, who also helps run Red Gate Bakery in the East Village. The couple had been on track to open a more refined English restaurant in the fall (I immensely enjoyed a preview of that effort right before the shutdown), but they shelved that plan when the pandemic hit.
"Currently, everything about restaurants seems so uncertain." Howard told Gothamist. "Our preferred style of service is pretty intimate, and we don’t think it’s safe to do that until infection rates are close to zero or there’s a vaccine. We had to think on our feet and adapt, and felt like a summery, takeout-friendly, counter service pop-up was the smartest way to go." Housed within Abigail's Kitchen, a cooking school known for its blindfolded "Dinners In the Dark," Dame Summer Club showcases Szymanski's flair for contemporary English cooking while keeping the menu simple.
The star of the show here is Szymanski's Fish & Chips, featuring a steaming fat filet surrounded by crackling beer batter crust. On the evening I ate at Dame the catch of the day was hake, though Szymanski uses cod and pollack as well. The chips are done in "proper English style," all puffy and crisp, and they serve as worthy accompaniments to fried, flaky swimmer.
You can also get the fried fish in sandwich format, on a brioche bun from Ciao, Gloria. Or mix it up with a towering Tomato Sandwich, complete little gem lettuce, lots of mayo, and, if desired, a chewy slab or two of housemade bacon. This is messy as hell, but oh so good.
Szymanski and Howard are playing around with various side dishes as well, including a boat of Monty's Disco Fries smothered in a thick curry with cheddar and chives.
Was dessert my favorite part of the meal? Maybe! Szymanski's Eton Mess is spectacular, with meringue, fluffy whipped cream, black and red raspberries within and sweet Tribute strawberries on top. And definitely also get whatever homemade ice cream dish they're serving. My scoops of super-creamy Lemon Vanilla topped with a sludgy blueberry compote and two chewy "jammy dodgers" made me think that if Dame opened an ice cream parlor I'd be there every day.
Wine, beer and boozy British drinks like Pimm's Cup, Shandy (summer ale with fizzy lemonade) and a "bitter or more bitter" Forthave and Topo are all available to go, which you can knock back on one of the comfortably-distanced chairs on Dame Summer Club's cute curbside lawn, complete with plastic flowers. Ordering and pickup are all done at the counter, and, if the street scene is too crowded for you, everything is available to bring home or anywhere else you want to go.
By now, it should go without saying that you must wear your mask at all times except when actually drinking or eating, but apparently people still need reminders. As Howard says, "later at night and after a few drinks, our guests can start gathering a little too close and forget to wear their masks when they approach the counter to order. We want people to enjoy themselves as long as we’re open, but we wish they’d respect the boundaries we’re setting as a business to ensure everyone’s safety, and that’s been a challenge to navigate while remaining hospitable."
As a bonus to all these pleasures of summer, Dame is giving away all of its profits, all season long. "We’ve been protesting and donating as individuals, but we felt like we could do more as a business," says Howard. "It’s obviously a terrible time to open a restaurant, but we thought this is the more responsible and helpful way of moving forward."
In June Dame donated everything to the NAACP, and in July all profits are going to Harlem Grown, which operates local urban farms to increase access to and knowledge of healthy food for Harlem residents. "For our second month we wanted to help closer to home and with a food-related cause." Howard explains. "We plan to deliver the funds in person and volunteer at their uptown farms to see our donations in action."
Dame Summer Club is operating until October out of Abigail's Kitchen, located at 85 MacDougal Street between Houston and Bleecker Streets, and is open Thursday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 10 p.m., or until they sell out of fish (damenewyork.com)