Redefining Comfort

Village Den interior. Photo: Karissa Ong for BeccaPR
The Village Den transformed from greasy spoon to health-conscious fare, thanks to a reality television star’s revamp. Can locals still get satisfaction at this neighborhood staple?

Antoni Porowski, the food and wine expert on Netflix’s hit show “Queer Eye,” introduced simple recipes that helped revamp the lives of everyday people from the inside out. Now he’s behind another reboot: The Village Den, a classic West Village diner, was reopened earlier this month by Porowski, along with his partners and restaurateurs Lisle Richards and Eric Marx. The new fast-casual cafe offers healthy options, and all that remains of the erstwhile Den is the name.

It’s a choice the owners thought long and hard about.

“[The name] is symbol of what it was, a meeting place, a crossroads of the West Village. It stands for community, and it stands for local, and those are two things we’ve been really focused on,” says Richards. “I mean, the food itself looks different than the food that was served [at the old Village Den], but I think the concept is very similar. It’s just a new dialogue.”

The menu is already generating plenty of conversation. It features “TV dinners,” gussied-up versions of the compartmentalized frozen variety. Favorites include the macadamia nut-crusted fish sticks and the meatloaf, says Richards. They also serve a variety of salads, smoothies and baked goods, some of which are sourced from Sans gluten-free bakery. Catering to various diets (gluten-free, vegan, paleo) without compromising taste is a priority.

The space is bright and clean, and a colorful mural of the West Village covers part of one wall. A board with a list of “things that matter” includes “recycling,” “dreaming’ and “eating your veggies” quite literally defines their “it takes a village” ethos. The focus on community makes for a lovely aesthetic. But will New Yorkers find comfort in quinoa and kale the same way they once did in brisket on a kaiser roll?

“Delis and diners in New York are disappearing right and left,” says Marx. “It’s tough, because as a New Yorker, that’s something that you’re very used to, and it’s part of what New York is. But I think that things change, and dietary habits change.”

Comfort, in large part, comes from familiarity. For those who watched “Queer Eye,” Porowski seemed to know this instinctively. He didn’t barge in with outlandish new recipes, but instead traded mayo for Greek yogurt in a classic salad dressing, and taught a microwave cook to make homemade pasta. The idea that healthy eating can be achieved through relatively small changes isn’t new, but perhaps a restaurant concept based around it is.

“Food doesn’t have to be difficult, food should be good. It shouldn’t be complicated because you want to make it complicated. [Antoni’s] got a really wide ability, to make something really ooey gooey and all that stuff, and then he has the ability to make something really healthy,” says Richards, who notes he still goes to diners, with La Bomboniere and Waverly Diner ranking among his favorites.

When it comes to food, New Yorkers can still get the best of both worlds: there is no shortage of both decadent and health-conscious options available. But in an age of online delivery and apps like Ritual that allow busy professionals to order from impersonal lunch spots in advance, human interaction and familiarity with those who make and serve our meals is rapidly disappearing. The sassy diners waitress who remembers your standing order is a largely a myth, but that’s where the nostalgia comes from. And though Porowski likely isn’t going to be blending your smoothie, friendly-seeming celebrities who put their personal stamp on a menu can make a place feel familiar even — if we only know them through the screen.

If you go: The Village Den, 225 West 12th St.