A living, frying, percolating piece of New York history sits on the the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue. For 92 years the Lexington Candy Shop has lured in customers with the promise of comfortable booths, kind staff, and a menu that has barely changed since the Truman administration. And as storied diners and luncheonettes continue to be pushed out by rising rents and chain competition, this one, at least, is thriving.
John Philis, 61, is the third generation owner of Lexington Candy shop. Philis began taking orders and counting the register on weekends and summer vacations in the 1970s, was full-time at the luncheonette by in 1980, and in 1990 formed a business partnership that allowed him to buy the family store. Philis—just "John" to the regulars—is a constant presence today. His apron is smeared with coffee grounds and bits of ketchup. His conversation is whip-sharp but kind, molded by a job that's introduced him to every type of person imaginable. He's a part of the place.
"We're a part of the living history of the city," Philis said. "There was a time when there were luncheonettes like this on every other block. Everybody grew up with them, they're part of the fabric of the city and they've all disappeared. Now it's up to us to sort of keep up the legacy and history of the business."
That history started in 1925 when John's grandfather, Soterios Philis, opened the store as a soda fountain and candy store. At that time, chocolate and other sweets were made homestyle in the basement and then sold upstairs. Then, in 1948, a full kitchen was built. A towering coffee urn and Hamilton Beach milkshake machine were installed (both are still there). The menu expanded to burgers, melts, fries, pancakes, and eggs. The candy shop was reborn as a do-anything American kitchen. The sign outside remained the same.
Today, many things are still done the old way. Lexington Candy Shop still serves homemade soda by mixing caramel syrup with seltzer water. Their chocolate malts are made with real malted milk powder. Every glass of juice is fresh squeezed to order. Every egg is fried in a buttered skillet. Tom Waits, eat your heart out.
"It's a place where people can come, grab a quick bite or have a nice leisurely lunch. It's a place where families can come and talk," Philis said. "We have seen kids grow up. For a while we had 2 four generation families coming in." Those long relationships—and the trust they've build—make the shop more than just another diner. "It's also a place where kids can come after school. The ones we know can run a tab, have a milkshake after school, and their parents can come back and pay [for] it. It's a place where people leave keys for their apartment and their friends pick them up. It's a neighborhood place where everybody knows each other," Philis said.
"We have a staff that just doesn't turnover. The newest person on the staff has been with us for about 11 or 12 years. So you come in, you see a familiar face."
Howard Shaw, 52, is a Lexington Candy Shop regular, eating breakfast or lunch at the counter three or four times a week. On weekends he brings his kids early to beat the rush.
"Everybody knows your name. It's a personalized, family place. The food is great, but it's really an atmosphere—the people that work here know me, they know my kids, and you don't see that so much anymore," Shaw said.
But Lexington Candy Shop isn't familiar ground to only the Upper East Side. Chances are, even if you haven't been in, you know the place. Philis proudly rattles off a list of Hollywood films, television commercials, and fashion shoots that have called on the luncheonette—Three Days of the Condor, Fading Gigilo, and The Nanny Diaries have all featured the old counter. It's not unheard of to catch a rock icon grabbing a bite in one of the booths, including The Boss.
"I keep coming in hopes that I'm going to see Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney," Shaw said. "If I see one of them, that might be the end for me. I'll know that I've finished here."
Lexington Candy Shop is located at 1226 Lexington Avenue on the corner of 83rd Street // lexingtoncandyshop.net // 212-288-0057