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Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table – LOST GEM

Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table – LOST GEM

680 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10025
Established: 2011

Anyone unfamiliar with Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table might be surprised to find a country cottage with a white picket fence surrounding it in the middle of New York City. “My husband had such a vision,” Liz O. Milner said upon first meeting us. She was referring to the building’s rustic and charming architecture, specifically the fence. From speaking to her, it was clear that though the pair is a team, Liz’s passion is the food. It is through her husband Nat’s family that the couple got involved in the restaurant world: the two also own Gabriela’s next door on Amsterdam Avenue, a Mexican restaurant that used to be owned by Nat’s Uncle Artie.

Having grown up in Boston and gone to college in DC, Liz was eager to do some traveling in order to see more than just the eastern seaboard. She joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corp and moved to Alaska in order to work with a midwife. Her experience proved very educational, especially when it came to nutrition. She started in Juno and then spent a year with a Yupik community before deciding to remain for a few more years. She felt her knowledge of the world expand: “I learned to ski there, I made great friends there, and I learned to love salmon there,” she said with a smile. After living in Alaska for six years, Liz met Nat, who was simply exploring the world. Together they spent another seven years in Alaska, and had their first daughter, Quinn.

While on their extended stay, Nat’s Uncle Artie would send them Ollie’s dumplings and Carmine’s meatballs, as he owned both restaurants. Liz remembers going camping and pulling out meatballs, thinking it was a real luxury. When Uncle Artie passed away, Nat’s sister asked him to return to New York to help run Gabriela’s, so the family of three decided to move to the Upper West Side.

The idea of opening Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table came about when Liz realized that there were no places where someone could get a grass-fed burger in the area. The Milners lived on West 91st Street, so they knew the neighborhood well, and they realized that there was a dearth of restaurants serving simple, local, seasonal American fare. As their son Huckleberry put it when he was five years old, “There’s no regular food.” Liz was in a perfect position to fill the gap, since she had just completed a degree at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and had taken a Food Therapy course at Natural Gourmet. The spot right next to Gabriela’s went on the market and Liz and Nat decided to grab the opportunity and fill the culinary niche, opening Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table in 2012.

Calling the restaurant “a family affair,” Liz explained that Nat’s father is credited with coming up with the name. “Elizabeth” is a name that also belonged to “Aunt Betty” with whom Liz was very close. It just so happened that, completely unplanned, the restaurant opened on Aunt Betty’s birthday. “Some things are just meant to be,” Liz suggested. The restaurant is a perfect homage to Aunt Betty because, in Liz’s words, “She was such a burger lady – she loved them well well done.” Another coincidence: the chef’s wife is also Elizabeth.

I noted that though the exterior of the restaurant is quaint and cute, the inside is more modern and subdued. It is a perfect balance, welcoming in those who love the country kitsch, but embracing those who look for a more urban environment. The décor is also another example of how the restaurant is a domestic affair – all the art is done by Nat’s mother, Angela. The work is beautifully abstract and modern and complements the space. Liz admitted that the upholstery often appears to mimic Angela’s style. She once told her mother-in-law, “It looks like you sat down, took your scarf off, and it wrapped itself around our banquette.” Liz’s mother is also represented in the décor: the woodwork on the walls is based on the wainscoting in the kitchen in which Liz grew up.

The strong personal ties that define the restaurant are not limited to blood relations. Many of the staff have become part of a big professional unit. “We have such a devoted group,” Liz said, pointing out Jessinia and Monica, who have proven to be invaluable members of the team. The two women started bringing out plates heaped with delicious food for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph and sample. The food comes from a variety of local sources, including Farmer Louie, who sets up a stall outside the restaurant on weekends. The team tried the kale hash, an item that was not even on the menu, but which Liz says everyone seems to order. It was made with kale, red cabbage, egg, and goat cheese. We also tried one of the breakfast sandwiches, served on a buttery, flaky croissant. As Tom, our photographer, said, “It’s hard to screw up breakfast food, but it is also hard to make it really good.” Elizabeth’s has succeeded. And though the restaurant gets a very busy weekend brunch crowd, not many people know that breakfast is served starting at 9am on weekdays. Tom was equally impressed with his Maple Latte that was served with milk. Similar to all the dairy at Elizabeth’s, the milk is single-source. I was thrilled with the veggie burger, which is considered by some to be the best on the Upper West Side. The quinoa-based burger lives up to the hype and is served with sprouts, tomato, avocado, and aioli. On the side, the team munched on sausage, sweet pickles, and potato crisps. When we were completely filled, Liz insisted that we had to take at least one bite of their homemade brownie, baked with malt balls and served with ice cream and caramel. It is worth the trip to 93rd Street just for this. Tom thought it might have been the best brownie he has ever tasted. It was that good!

While we sampled the scrumptious feast that the staff set before us, I asked Liz about the bar, which often attracts a mature crowd. “We’d love to see more of the young crowd,” Liz encouraged, mentioning various programs the restaurant offers that might appeal to the young professionals. There is a date night on Wednesdays (“Bring your mom! She’s the best date!”) , as well as a Teacher’s Lounge Happy Hour every Thursday. The goal, Liz said, is for the bar to have a friendly “Cheers vibe.”

Before I left, I noticed a heart-warming plaque in the corner dedicated to Sylvia H. Thompson. In the description, she is called an activist, a friend, and a first patron. Liz shared that Sylvia would eat at Elizabeth’s almost every day. Though she would often have lunch by herself, at dinner she would bring a new guest almost every night, introducing more regulars to the restaurant. When she passed away, the restaurant chose to honor her. It was a perfect example of how Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table makes people feel at home, like one of the family.