"The customer isn't always right" is only one of restaurateur Kenny Shopsin's many dyspeptic mottos, but it's one of a handful that can be printed without recourse to delicate-sensibility-sparing asterisks. Fine-art photographer, illustrator and music-video director Matt Mahurin's documentary about Shopsin and his venerable 34-seat cafe is as scruffy and...read more
"The customer isn't always right" is only one of restaurateur Kenny Shopsin's many dyspeptic mottos, but it's one of a handful that can be printed without recourse to delicate-sensibility-sparing asterisks. Fine-art photographer, illustrator and music-video director Matt Mahurin's documentary about Shopsin and his venerable 34-seat cafe is as scruffy and artless as Shopsin himself. The golden age of Greenwich Village eccentrics is long gone, killed by spiraling rents that drove the political activists, struggling artists, social rebels and all-around oddballs in search of cheaper digs. But vestiges of the old Village remain in rent-regulated niches like Shopsin's General Store, a fixture on the corner of Bedford and Morton for some 30 years. Shopsin and his wife, Eve, raised five children while operating first a bona fide general store, then a local restaurant renowned in equal parts for its prodigious and wildly varied menu (most items cooked to order) and for Shopsin's foulmouthed, strongly held opinions about religion, life, sex, food, politics, child-rearing, fly-killing and why the world is going to hell in a handbasket. A man who begins by describing himself as a "fat old nasty Jew" is unlikely to pull his punches later, and Shopsin doesn't. A self-taught cook whose tiny kitchen is a minefield of Rube Goldberg-esque improvisations, Shopsin runs his restaurant as a personal fiefdom, shunning publicity, closing on weekends, refusing to seat parties larger than four and throwing out patrons whose attitude he dislikes. He dotes on regulars like Mahurin and acclaimed writer Calvin Trillin, who risked banishment to pen a 2002 New Yorker portrait that's a modern-day classic of food-related journalism. Mahurin (best known for having designed the June 1994 Time magazine cover featuring a digitally darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson beneath the headline "An American Tragedy" that stirred up so much controversy it was withdrawn from circulation) structures his shambling feature around the General Store's forced move from its longtime location to a space two blocks away, and includes interviews with Eve (who died shortly after the relocation), three of their children, and various customers. Neither Shopsin's hands-on approach to food preparation nor his profane patter will suit all tastes, and not everyone will think it's a bad thing that they don't make characters like Shopsin anymore. But he's a small piece of New York history, and Mahurin's film is the portrait he deserves: small, noisy and oddly engaging beneath the bluster.
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