In New York City, you might be strolling along a street, only to find that it has a different name than you expect or that it’s changed names somewhere along the way. Some examples…
- Sixth Avenue is the same as Avenue of the Americas
- 8th Street becomes “St. Mark’s Place” between Third Avenue and Avenue A
- Park Avenue is “Fourth Avenue” below 14th Street, “Union Square East” between 14th and 17th Street, and “Park Avenue South” between 17th and 32nd Streets.
Those are all familiar enough, well-traveled streets, but I discovered another, lesser-known one when I was heading to Great Jones Cafe in NoHo.
Great Jones Street is essentially 3rd Street between Broadway and the Bowery. It’s named for Samuel Jones, who was a lawyer and member of the New York State Assembly way back in the day, and actually the state’s first Comptroller. When Jones deeded the area to the city, he specified that any street going through that property be named after him. The thing is, there was already a Jones Street in Greenwich Village (named for his brother-in-law Dr. Gardner Jones, in fact!). The story goes that to avoid confusion, Samuel Jones suggested his street be called “Great Jones Street.” Another version says that it’s “Great” because it’s wider than the other. Imagine…having a street named after you and having it be GREAT at that. One can dream!
Moving on! Great Jones Cafe, a bright orange building with purple doors and windows, opened in 1983 when the street was an unremarkable, if not seedy, block. There’s even an argument that the term “jonesing,” as in an intense craving often related to drugs, comes from this street, a former junkie hangout. I can’t verify if that’s true or not, but thirty some years later, the area is much more alive and the restaurant remains a humble neighborhood spot, serving up Southern, Cajun, and Creole goodness.
Great Jones Cafe is really as laid back as it gets with some little touches like chili pepper lights strung around the small space and reddish lighting that makes it feel like you’re in a club or bar (and is why my photos have such an odd tint to them). The menu changes daily–and differs depending on whether you go for brunch, lunch, or dinner–but you can expect things like black bean tortilla soup, Creole wings, cornmeal fried shrimp, Louisiana jambalaya, roasted picnic chicken, Texas beef chili, grilled andouille sausage po’boy….you get the picture.
I ordered the file gumbo with andouille and shrimp and tacked on an order of their famous, dense, cornbread as well. When I was eating here, I didn’t really think much of or even notice the “file” part of my order. All I knew was that I wanted gumbo! Now that I’ve learned what file actually is, it makes so much sense why this gumbo tasted different from most others I’ve had. File powder, or gumbo file, is made from dried and ground sassafras tree leaves. Choctaw Indians were the first to use it as a seasoning, and it’s entirely possible that the name “gumbo” originates from their word for file, which is “kombo.” Now I get why my gumbo had such a unique, deep, earthy tasty to it.
I know, I know. I just bombarded you with a ton of historical facts and stories, but don’t worry. I won’t quiz ya! If you take nothing else away from reading this, just know that if you want some homey Cajun food, wander on down to Great Jones Street and you’ll be in good hands.
File gumbo with andouille and shrimp, cornbread
54 Great Jones St
New York, NY 10012