Ann Redding and Matt Danzer’s excellent, vivid Thai cooking at Uncle Boon’s earned the co-chefs a Michelin star last year, but at their new restaurant in Nolita, the duo makes dinner without bird’s eye chilies or banana blossoms.
Mr. Donahue’s is a shrine to saltines—yes, the bland crackers wrapped in tubes of wax paper—and other beloved fragments of American dining with an uncertain future in New York, such as fried onions with ranch dressing. The tiny room is a wood-paneled clutter of vintage film posters procured on EBay, crocheted bunnies, and pink carnations. There are just five seats at the bar and an additional four at tables lined with doilies, which could easily resemble an annoying forgery, a fetishization of the linoleum diners being slowly wiped out in New York. Thanks to the warm energy of the staff and the generous portions, it’s completely charming.
Restaurants can’t run on charm, though. Here’s why you could become a regular: Mr. Donahue’s serves juicy slabs of slow-roasted beef: hot, pink, peppered strip loins with fine edges of wobbly fat. At $26, it’s the most expensive item on a pleasingly concise menu—a mix-and-match diner compilation with light touches of 1970s kitsch.
Every main comes with two sides and a sauce; you choose your own adventure. The tiny, tender “Swedish-American” meatballs are a great place to start; they come in a pale, lump-less gravy that pools around grape jelly (instead of around the traditionally Swedish accompaniment made from lingonberries). The dramatically craggy chicken-fried pork cheek is a beauty as well, the meat sticky and tender under a great, crisp bulk. If you go for this, honey mustard sauce is the way and the light.
Sides change frequently, and chances are high that you’d gladly trade in half of the weaker sides—the forgettable jerk mushrooms, the slippery squash parm—for a chance at some mashed potatoes, the kind that come with a big pat of cold butter still melting over the top and that take up half the plate, ideally. In the fall, Redding says, mashed potatoes will probably make an appearance.
Until then, fried onions with a thin side of ranch dressing are an ideal side for that beef. And the pair of roasted oysters are huge, delicious, and extremely messy, with a sweet streak of barbecue sauce that Redding and Danzer make themselves. You can take your time with half a steamed artichoke, dipping the chilled leaves in mayonnaise, one by one. A Tabasco-spiked crab salad is tastier when it’s scooped onto saltine crackers; these arrive still in the wrapper, really getting to the heart of Mr. Donahue’s theme: plentiful, no-nonsense, American comforts.
Redding and Danzer take turns in the kitchen, and no matter how you order, your plate will be happily crammed with food, as if composed by someone who cares less about presentation and more about how much you’re getting to eat. (Specifically, are you getting enough to eat?)
Mr. Donahue’s has inviting windows that open onto Mott Street. On a recent evening, a tall diner climbed right through them in her long vintage dress, as if the restaurant were a backyard playhouse. No one blinked. You tend to leave happy, though the restaurant does have its faults: You'll be squished, your table’s plates will never arrive at the same time, and the rotisserie chicken is dull. (Not nearly as delicious as the one at Uncle Boon’s.)
Taste matters, above all, but the secret of a good restaurant is also in the way it makes you feel. Mr. Donahue's, which was named after Danzer’s grandfather, makes you feel, just for an hour or two, as if the world is a kind, uncomplicated place. There are no courses here, unless you count a satisfying $5 dessert: a tall glass of vanilla ice cream and barely sweetened whipped cream, with a can of root beer on the side, served with a long spoon and as many bendy straws as there are people.
Mr. Donahue’s is at 203 Mott Street (Nolita): +1 (646) 850-9480 or mrdonahues.com
Rating: One Star (Good)
What to Order: Roast beef with two sides ($26); Chicken-fried pork cheese with two sides ($19); Oysters with barbecue sauce; Steamed artichoke; Crab imperial; Crispy onions with ranch; Root beer float ($5)
Need to Know: Mr Donahue's has wines by the glass: one bubbly, one pink, one white, one red, a beer; it doesn’t have a full liquor license.
Soundtrack: Jazz standards