A distinguished modern art collection once hung in the cozy Greenwich Village tavern at 20 Christopher Street, above steaming bowls of 35-cent Romanian chorba stew. Romany Marie’s, which operated out of the location between 1915-1923, wasn’t plastered in paintings because its proprietor was a collector (although Marie Marchand did love art). It was simple: neighborhood artists who were strapped for cash could go there for a free meal, in exchange for artwork.
Marie’s inner circle of impoverished creatives congregated in the courtyard behind the building, where their gratuitously ladled meals went unobserved by the tourists seated at the front of the house who were visiting the neighborhood to ogle wild bohemians. “Serious people, writers, artists, whatever, could eat free if they needed to, without embarrassment,” Marie recalled in her biography, Romany Marie: The Queen of Greenwich Village (2006). “It was not a restaurant; it was a center.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, the poet and playwright, was a regular and often asked Marie to interpret the grounds in her cups of Turkish coffee. Stuart Davis, a modernist painter, was a daily patron. Artist John Sloan etched an interior view of the Christopher Street location (Romany Marie’s changed addresses a total of 11 times during Marchand’s 30-year career as a restauranteur), and painted a portrait of Marie that is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sculptor Constantin Brancusi strummed his guitar there.
A century later, the clientele and menu at 20 Christopher Street have changed considerably. After remaining vacant for some time, for the past five years the quaint spot has been home to Delice & Sarrasin, a 30-seat vegan restaurant that makes plant-based versions of classic French dishes. (The nut-based fromage plate and oyster mushroom escargot are menu favorites.)
“[The building] definitely has a lot of history,” said Christophe Caron, the owner of Delice & Sarrasin, in an interview with Bedford + Bowery. “This location has been famous for a lot of people in the West Village, people that have been living in the neighborhood forever.”
Caron has heard much local lore about 20 Christopher Street, which is half of an identical pair of Federal style buildings dating to 1827. One neighbor told Caron that the unassuming three-story edifice was famous for housing the pub where an unspecified 1800s New York mayor enjoyed his daily libation. More recently, in the 1980s, a rustic café called Rumbuls occupied the space, serving homemade pastries and making use of the locale’s two small fireplaces and garden view in the back. An antique rocking horse was displayed in the front bay window, hinting at the coffee shop’s aesthetic.
The commercial space was then shuttered for many years, despite its prime location. When Caron first received the keys five years ago, he discovered Rumbuls’ napkins, signage, and lots of crumbling electrical wires. “We basically had to redo everything, from electricity to plumbing,” Caron noted.
Evidently, the building’s charm combined with the storied tales of its previous Greenwich Village eateries were worth the considerable renovations.
Paintings by 20th century masters no longer adorn the walls of 20 Christopher Street. Today, photographs of the Caron family – who manage Delice & Sarrasin together – hang above the defunct fireplace, making diners feel at home (even though there’s no free food). But in some ways, things remain the same. Caron’s mother is the restaurant’s head chef, as was Marie, in the business of serving dishes from the old country to New York clientele.